Actions

Work Header

youth dipped in folly

Work Text:

Oliver Banks stands opposite Gerry Keay. They hold a book between them. Behind Oliver are black vines, the death tendrils, while Gerry is surrounded by ghostly white wisps and, over his shoulder, teeth are bared in a rictus smile.

 

Oliver has never seen a ghost before, but he’s fairly sure that the vaguely human-shaped thing coiled around that person’s shoulders qualifies as one.

The ghost isn’t like the tendrils he’s been seeing, somehow alive and purposeful. Not like the people he sees in his dreams either, suspended in painful death. It is, instead, somewhere in between, an overexposed photo with its teeth bared in a rictus snarl—amusement? Maybe triumph? Didn’t often see those—with that same oilslick pulse of colours across its surface that says vitality despite everything.

More importantly, it feels the same. Dreadful. Inevitable. Calming. Unremarkable as a street lamp. Something that should have been there and perhaps always had been. Oliver had seen it as he left the store and had gone right on walking until his brain caught up and reminded him actually, that’s weird, what the fuck, and he backtracked.

And so, he’s standing here, watching the person with the ghost on their shoulders.

Whether the person knows about the ghost on their shoulders is hard to say. Usually Oliver would’ve said no, of course not, except they’re dressed like they’re trying very hard to cosplay a hungover vampire, makeup smudged around their eyes and long limp hair dyed black, except for the green-blond roots. They eat the pavement up in quick strides, a long leather coat flapping around their legs. Didn’t look warm enough for this weather, not to mention the holes in their jeans—and Oliver adjusts his coat, pulls it in tighter, cold on their behalf—but they don’t look like they particularly care. They are scowling around a cigarette, but that could just as easily have been a general ugh, London, people, everything response, or even a Yeah I’m smoking in public, what’re you going to do about it? as opposed to the ghost draped over their shoulders.

Oliver takes one step to follow. Then takes a step back, stops.

For one, a tall Black man following someone in the evening dark? Plenty of people are just waiting to notice that even when it’s not happening, let alone when it is. He has his shopping with him too, the reusable canvas bag digging into his shoulder with the weight of dinner, and that’ll just add to the suspicion.

For another, Oliver knows, he knows he’ll regret this. Just like he’d known he’d regret passing by his own building in his dreams. And he’d known he’d regret turning right, to the little alleyway where the death of one of his neighbours was foretold in the waiting entrails of the tendrils he was seeing even awake. And he’d known he’d regret touching them.

No. He doesn’t need to do this. Not in the waking world. If that ghost or that person belongs to the same thing those tendrils do—

(the same thing he does)

—then he’ll see them in his dreams.

And...and if the ghost is a warning of some awful new death, well. Telling them about it never works anyway.

Still, he watches them until they disappear. The ghost does not turn or acknowledge him in any way. But he can see its grin through its transparent body, and it looks like it’s grinning at him.

*

Except Oliver can’t find them in his dreams. Not in the spot he last saw them, not anywhere nearby, not anywhere else, no ghost. He is vaguely aware of his alarm in the background, but pushes on. Never mind work. Who knows when he’ll get another dream.

Oliver can cover a lot of ground in a dream but even so, it takes another two comb-throughs before he can find the gap. It is a sucking wound of stillness in the pulsing, fleshy dreamscape, an off-key note that nonetheless somehow harmonises with the rhythm of the dream. It feels not of this world and precisely of this world, all in one, and that is how Oliver comes upon Pinhole Books.

And, when he wakes up and starts to dig, he finds its current owner as well, that same sullen look staring out at him from articles about a murder case, and in the bookstore no less.

Gerard Keay. And the ghost was, presumably, his mum, so that’s two mysteries solved already.

The rest isn’t so easy. Aside from those articles, some ancient social media abandoned long before the murder charge with only grainy too-dark photos, and the even more ancient bookstore website, there is nothing about Gerard Keay online.

And maybe Oliver should leave it there. Plenty of mysteries in life, after all. Chief among them is how the fuck he’s seeing this ghost in the first place, but.

Why a ghost? How a ghost? Are there others? Does Keay know she’s there? Did he make her like that on purpose? Is she killing him slowly? Because much as Oliver tells himself it’s pointless, there’s still, still part of him that wonders if he shouldn’t at least try—and if it turns out Keay did kill and bind her somehow, then...then maybe he can free the ghost, right? Still a good deed.

Good deed, he reminds himself when, for the third evening in a row, he finishes up his shift at the store and then heads for Pinhole Books. Or, well, the street it’s on, anyway. If it’s a good deed, he doesn’t have to feel weird about sort of—kind of—alright, totally stalking Gerard Keay.

He was nervous about it the past two nights, but that was because he hadn’t really known the street yet and worried about being suspicious and kept dipping into shops and making circuits that, in hindsight, had probably made him more suspicious. Those circuits mean he knows the layout of the street better.

This time, he heads straight for the cafe opposite Pinhole Books to wait and watch. He has his laptop with him. He figures if he pretends he’s a student or...or a novelist or something—he remembers his friend Anahita used to spend ages in cafes just pecking away at her projects—then it’s a decent reason not to move around and he has a good view of Pinhole Books and can actually see Keay again.

The whole thing leaves him feeling somewhere on the intersection between James Bond and wanker, leaning more to the side of wanker when he’s sat there, laptop open, and….realises he has no idea what to write.

Oliver does his best to both look convincingly busy and steal glances over the lip of his laptop screen, but apparently that’s not much at all, because one of the cafe patrons, after a half hour of looking-not-looking, leans over Oliver and says, “Which theory are you into, then?”

“Um. What?”

“I personally think he did it. No one can do that sort of thing to themselves, let alone a poor old lady.”

Only for another patron who had otherwise seemed preoccupied with their sketchbook to pipe in with, “Poor old lady my arse. That woman was a witch and you know it.”

Clearly Oliver was not alone in sneaking glances at the bookstore across the street, which becomes all the more apparent when the barista, deciding Oliver was One of Them, takes morbid pleasure in telling him exactly which table Gerard Keay sat in after he murdered his mother.

“Strolled in here like nothing was the matter, his whole front just covered in gore,” says the barista.

“Not like nothing was the matter. Poor lad was in shock!” says the server as they’re setting down someone’s order.

Which is how Oliver learns that the cafe is prime Gerard Keay Watching Spot and hears all about the competing theories of what actually happened that night, all of which takes a back seat to the more important debate of Was the Poor Lad At Fault.

He learns that Gerard Keay and his mother lived in the flat-slash-shop for ages, although never quite became part of the neighbourhood. Mary Keay was apparently a piece of work, the sort to make people uncomfortable for sport, the barista says

Not, for fun. For sport.

Horrifying as the incident was, no one was really sad to see her go.

Gerard, though, had always looked a little haunted, trailing after her, and no one was terribly surprised Gerard had finally done something about her. If you believed the theory he did do it.

The articles Oliver had seen had a field day with the Goth homeschooled son of a single mother. Every possible Satanism angle taken advantage of. But Keay himself hadn’t done or said much in the lead-up to the trial, and even went peacefully with the police when he was arrested. Being quiet and keeping out of the spotlight, unfortunately, made him very interesting for this small but dedicated group of gawkers.

So Oliver trades his nervousness for a vague sense of guilt, both at the fact he’s lying by pretending to share their horrible pastime, and at...well, sort of actually sharing their horrible pastime.

It feels very...voyeuristic.

But it does give him a good excuse to sit here without having to pretend to write a novel. Plus they’ve provided much more context than he would have found by himself.

For instance, now he knows that Keay disappears for ages at a time. Doesn’t shop locally or really talk to anyone, which is understandable considering his relative notoriety, but it meant all they do hear from him is raised voices in the top floor of the bookshop. Sometimes, more than one. Except that no one stays there besides him, and the watchers would know, wouldn’t they? No one lived there and the bookstore itself was never open for business. A sign at the door says Appointment Only but no one can figure out how to get an appointment, no number on their website or listed anywhere.

But then once in a blue moon, someone comes to the door at some absurd hour and knocks, and the door opens, and you can tell it isn’t Gerard because he’s a tall bastard, isn’t he? Not so whoever opens it. At least not when the barista saw. Not to mention the random injuries he suddenly gets, far too often to be normal.

“And then they’d be gone the next time you saw him, easy as that,” one of the watchers whispers.

And for the first time, Oliver realises maybe he should feel afraid.

For the first time, Oliver realises he...isn’t.

*

It’s a full two weeks since Oliver starts, er, watching that he sees Gerard Keay again himself. Same long leather coat, same ghost draped around his shoulders, he steps out of his front door and doesn’t even bother to lock it behind him.

More importantly, Gerard Keay sees him.

Does a double-take that stops him short just as he’s passing the cafe—from across the street no less—and narrows his eyes, and Oliver can feel the back of his neck prickle. The urge to check over his shoulder for tendrils or maybe a ghost of his own is overwhelming. Oliver is certain, then, that Gerard Keay sees.

Not a word. Oliver isn’t even sure he’s breathing. Then Keay shrugs and gestures for Oliver to follow with a lazy wave of his hand as he turns on his heel. He doesn’t look back.

Now, normally following creepy haunted guys to who-knows-where after dark is a bad idea, but what about this hadn’t already been a bad idea? To cement that, Oliver glances around him, where his fellow Gerard Keay Watchers are either pretending they hadn’t seen and didn’t know Oliver or else wildly pointing to Keay and urging him to follow.

“So,” Gerard Keay says as Oliver finally catches up to him. He doesn’t slow down. “Beef or business?”

“E-excuse me?” This close, Oliver can smell the ghost. It’s smaller than the last time he’d seen it, more translucent, but it smells, tastes, of blood, a thick metallic film on his tongue, and Oliver can’t help making a face.

“I’m sorry, was that too coarse for you or whatever?” Keay says, and stops to half turn towards Oliver. What looks like the tattoo of an eye peeks over the collar of his t-shirt.“You’ve been watching me on and off and with your sort that’s either beef that I fucked something up for you, or business. Now, I don’t think I fucked up anything from your side recently but if I did, I’m not sorry for it and I’d do it again, so let’s get this over with.”

The question, now, is whether to play along or not. Because that is a lot of aggression aimed his way and, though he has height on Keay, he doesn’t know if he’d have the, uh...ability to scrap quite like Keay does. He assumes, anyway, what with those injuries he apparently keeps getting and the crookedness of Keay's nose that suggests it's been broken one time too many. Not to mention the real possibility he murdered and skinned his mum. Which means, obviously, he isn’t choosing the “beef” option here, but if he plays along and Keay finds out he’s lying…? That could go badly.

But if he says he doesn’t know, Keay might wave him off entirely, and Oliver wants answers.

“If...I said business...what would that entail, exactly?”

There. Hedging his bets.

Keay snorts. “You saw the bookshop right?”

“So business is...books.”

Oliver can’t quite keep the incredulity from his voice even though, yeah, makes sense, and really he has no reason to think the bookshop is a front or anything. It just seems...so painfully mundane.

Like an accountant prophet of death, yeah.

“Look, I dunno what people have told you, mate, but books is all I do. If you have a Leitner you want to get rid of, hand it over or tell me where it is and I’ll take care of it. If you want it circulated...I’ll see what I can do. Other than that, piss off.”

Keay turns again to walk away, so hedging his bets hadn't quite worked.

(And funny, isn’t it, how that watched pressure lifts.)

Oliver doesn’t know what a Leitner is beyond, presumably, a book, which he doesn’t have access to and couldn't begin to fake. He could ask what Keay had meant by "his side" or what he was in the habit of fucking up for other people but Oliver imagines that would just net him another piss off, maybe more forcefully this time.

And Keay is getting further and further away.

So Oliver blurts, "Did you know you have a ghost?"

And Gerard Keay stops. A passerby nearly runs into him, starts to curse but thinks better of it when they get a look at his face, presumably. Oliver doesn’t catch up just yet. It’s safer staying behind, just in case he needs to run.

“Where?” Keay asks.

“On, um...Around your shoulders. You’re carrying it around. Er - her, I should say. May—oh.” Because Keay’s pretty fast, it turns out, and is now in his face. And with their height difference, that means the ghost is really in his face, her head resting atop Keay’s blond-going-green roots. Oliver holds his breath against the blood-stink and looks away from it immediately.

Oh, huh, Keay has a tattoo of an eye on his throat. It peeks out from the collar of his t-shirt. Watching. Weird that Oliver hadn’t noticed before.

“You a friend of my mum’s? I didn’t think she had any End-touched contacts—doesn’t like someone one-upping her in her own field, I thought, but s’pose she’s surprised me before.”

End. All the breath escapes him in a huff, like he’s been punched.

“Oh God, End, of course. End.”

Inhale through the nose, hold, exhale through the mouth. In for five, out for five, never mind the blood smell, even. Oliver’s heart is still in his throat but he’s in public and this isn’t the time for a freak-out.

The thing is, he’d never had it said out loud before, not even to himself. End-touched is somehow both more and less pretentious than Prophet of Death but it clicks into that space he knows as truth just as well. No excuse to be rude, though, and leaving people hanging was rude. So.

“Sorry.” Deep breath. Hold. Exhale. “Just, uh...I’ve never—”

“S’alright…” Keay trails off, eyeing him. “You’re new, aren’t you?”

“Not...precisely.”

“Weird spooky power you still don’t know the extent of, never met anyone who knows anything similar, can’t find it in books, know you’re not losing it because it’s having real effects on your life, kinda scared but not sure where to go? Sound familiar?”

“...Alright, if you put it that way.” Oliver shoves his hands in his pockets. He doesn’t much like being identified as new and therefore clueless, but Keay’s shoulders are more relaxed and he sounds less aggressive than a moment ago, so if it helps him get some answers he can live with it. “How did you know? About the, um. The End thing.”

“Same way you knew about the ghost, pretty sure.”

“Weird spooky power?”

“A-yep.”

“But...you can’t see the ghost. So you’re not End-touched. Are there...other—

“Oh, I can see her alright. Just. Not now.” Keay sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Right, this’ll take a while, and I do actually have somewhere I was going. I’m guessing you got questions and won’t leave me alone anytime soon?”

“Well, I - I mean—”

“Well. You know where I live. Probably easiest to answer there. Drop by tomorrow, same time. And, uh, what was your name again?”

Oliver blinks. Because somehow it didn’t occur until just now that Keay would learn about him and he finds himself both recoiling from the idea and blanking on what to do about it at the same time.

“Antonio,” he says, because when in doubt just blurt out the first name that comes to mind. And then he grabs a random boyfriend’s name to round it off. “Blake. It’s, um, Antonio Blake.”

“Alright, then, Antonio. Tomorrow.”

*

And tomorrow, same time on the dot, Oliver is at the door to Pinhole Books.

Or. Well. He’d gotten scared of Keay rescinding the offer if he was late so actually he’d arrived early, but of course he wasn’t about to knock before their agreed time because that was just rude. Nor could he just loiter in front of the building. And anyway was he supposed to bring something? First time in someone’s home and all? But that assumed a friendliness that wasn’t there and—

Mostly Oliver had spent the half-hour since he left the tube station walking in and out of shops. He did, inevitably, buy something, because it was suspicious if he just browsed and left but also felt rude and his anxiety could only handle one thing at a time, but he has his purchases stashed away in his messenger bag. That way, if it looked like Keay had expected he brought something, ta da, ready, but not presumptuous.

And yes, he’s scared as fuck.

And no, he is very much not looking back at the cafe to see if any of the Watchers are, er, watching.

He can hear the racket of Keay’s descent and, sure enough, there he is at the door. No make-up this time, just pillow creases and messy hair that say he was probably asleep. Without a word, he gestures Oliver up the flight of stairs, so...okay, if they’re not doing a greeting thing, Oliver just climbs the stairs.

He emerges into what he assumes is the store area, although how anyone finds a book in this mess, much less sells any, is beyond him. Every wall is covered with bookshelves, and every bookshelf is blocked by a wall of books in haphazard towers, some as tall as his waist. Oliver adjusts his messenger bag to bring it over his front so it doesn’t accidentally knock anything over, and keeps to the side until Keay strides through to lead the way. He pulls his hair up into a loose bun, picking up a pencil in passing to hold it in place.

There is an eye tattooed on the back of his neck too. Oliver can see just the vaguest outline of it through the ghost, which is bigger today. He might have cracked a joke about eyes in the back of his head to deter theft but then they enter a (very dusty, and Oliver tries his best to hold his cough in) study, and there is a painted eye on the wall, and it…

Really no other way to put this: it tastes powerful.

Underneath it is a line of text.

“Grant us the sight that we—”

Keay’s hand clamps on Oliver’s wrist. “You don’t wanna do that.”

“Oh. Uh. Sorry.” And Keay lets go of him with a nod. “Is it...You’re not End, you said. Are there...spooky powers to do with eyes?”

“Caught on, huh? Yeah, there are.” He pulls the ancient desk chair out and sweeps the mess of papers that had been on it just...onto the floor, just like that. “Might wanna sit down for this, though. It’ll take a while to explain. Or, actually...Why don’t you start me off with what you do know.”

Keay pushes himself up onto the desk and sits slouched, elbows on his knees. It’s...very hard to watch just his face and not the ghost’s as well, although at least this time the blood smell is overpowered by the dust and cigarette smell of a smoker’s unventilated space.

Nothing, is the first thing on Oliver’s mind. He knows nothing. But the part of him that worked his arse off all his life to be taken seriously, considered smart and educated and competent, balks at being seen as clueless, and the helplessness of it rankles badly. He’s had to rely on others’ generosity enough after his job and Graham collided in the glorious implosion of his mental health, and he’s learned to live with it, but he’s not about to rely on Keay’s without at least showing he’s done some of the work.

“I know that when I sleep, I dream of death,” Oliver says. “Not...not always. Just a few times a month, I find myself somewhere—like here, but not, and maybe that’s another...dimension or plane of consciousness or maybe it’s a visual representation of a concept I can’t even begin to grasp—I’ve read everything I can on lucid dreaming, esoteric dream symbolism, nothing that comes even close. But I also know it’s real, because I have asked after the people I have dreamed about and sure enough…”

“Dead?”

“And in the exact way I dreamed it.”

Keay says, “Huh...Sucks,” and Oliver was prepared for a lot of responses—dismissal, incredulity, more questions, maybe even validation—but the flippant Sucks is...not one he was prepared for, and he just blinks up at Keay until he adds, “I mean, pretty mild as far as being targeted by an Entity goes? But still shit. How do you dream their deaths, anyway? Like is it a prophecy thing or…?”

Saying he dreams of veins and thumping rhythm would mean nothing. Besides, the last time he tried to give a visual description of his dream—he’d gone after one of the dream interpreters in his, uh, current industry, what with the “magic shop” and all—had resulted in the person assuming Oliver was dreaming of tentacles and going on a tangent about…that. Not that Oliver was judging, but it’s very unhelpful to have dreams of death misinterpreted as dreams of sex and then have to sit awkwardly through the resulting explanation.

It’s tempting to be surface-level and say he just knows.

But. If Keay can help...And if the veins, tendrils, tentacles, whatever they are have significance…

“Right. So. I know how this will sound,” Oliver says, and groans internally when Keay straightens up with unmistakable interest. “But it’s...it’s death, it’s very much...just about death.”

“Uh-huh. Death. Got it.”

Keay’s amusement doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence but, well, here goes. Grave and serious as he can be, Oliver explains the orange-tinged landscape, the thrumming just underneath reality, the veins—he nearly says throbbing once, thankfully catches himself—and how they will wind around and through their victims, and he will feel it in the rhythm of his dreams and just know, even without the tendrils explicitly winding around the cause of death as a helpful guide.

When he’s done, Keay nods to himself and says, “Veins and rhythm...Makes sense.”

“Does it?”

“Sure. Sounds like a heartbeat to me. Just not a human one.”

Oliver is gripped by the image of those veins plunged into people’s bodies, the pulsing, imagines following one to whatever end there may be, whatever vast creature they feed into. It turns him cold, makes it hard to breathe. The tight feeling in his chest is a familiar one, and he reminds himself to count. In for three, out for three. In for four, out for four. He’s fine. He’s going to be fine. Keay is...being flippant, probably.

Hopefully.

That watched weight is pressing again.

“And I’m guessing the deaths aren’t anything you can stop,” Keay says.

“I don’t always know...who it is or when it’ll happen. The people, the images, linger after they’re dead as well, so it’s a toss-up as to if they’re already dead or not by the time I try to find them. But...I mean even when I do, a stranger bumping into you, telling you not to walk down a certain street or to be careful speeding or…”

“Right, yeah, not too inclined to believe you. I get that.” Fingers gripping the desk, Keay taps his nails along its underside steadily as he thinks. He isn’t looking at Oliver, but that doesn’t make him feel any less watched, with the eye painting on the wall. “And, my ghost? You see that in a dream?”

“...No. The, um, the opposite, actually.”

“You...gonna elaborate on that, or…?”

“Don’t know if I know how,” Oliver says, and shrugs.

“Fair. Shit’s weird. So if you can’t see it in your dream, I’m guessing you’re seeing it now.”

Oliver grimaces but lifts his head to meet the ghost’s eye, or where its eyes could conceivably be, instead of Keay’s.

“Oh, fuck, she’s literally on me? Ugggggh.”

Keay gives an exaggerated shudder, brushing at his shoulders and the top of his head, then flicking his fingers after, like he’s trying to get spiderwebbing off. It’s...weirdly funny, but he seems entirely serious about it, so Oliver just presses his lips together and lets him get it out of his system.

After a few more moments of batting at both himself and the thin air, Keay says,“Guessing that didn’t do anything.”

“Fraid not.”

“Worth a shot. Never mind, I’ll figure it out.”

“With your, um...spooky eye powers?”

“Right, yeah. So. There are... let’s say, forces.”

It turns out that gigantic unfathomable entity mental image hadn’t been entirely wrong. It’s difficult to wrap his mind around, but after three hours sat in that dingy room, eight books flipped open and quickly discarded, countless pages scribbled (because Oliver, of course, is taking notes, asking questions, and Keay leans in occasionally to draw diagrams about how these things oppose) it starts to sink in.

As does the panic.

Because, extradimensional monsters made of fear. Made of...their fear. Feeding off of them. Except according to Keay these things aren’t conscious, not like actively targeting anyone. It’s just Oliver’s fucked luck, isn’t it? And it’s not like Oliver hadn’t known it was bad news, but—

When Death is just a force of nature, a thing that happens, and he can predict it, that’s...so much more peaceful than amorphous eldritch monster and—

And whose fear is it feeding off of? Oliver’s, helpless to stop it? The people Oliver dreams of, who he might try to warn and therefore freak out? Both? Neither? Is there another layer to this Oliver doesn’t know yet?

His chest is clamped tight. His hands are numb. His skin prickles. His heart is in his throat, behind his face, behind his eyes. He can feel every beat, like the rhythm of the dream and—

It’s funny, isn’t it? How much a panic attack feels like dying. Fitting, almost. He’d laugh if he had the breath for it.

All things considered, Oliver’s actually quite proud he’s managed to hold it in this long. And without a single cup of tea to tide him over too.

He is eventually aware of Keay, who got off of the desk at some point, going, “Easy, easy. Shhhh,” over and over again. Keay must notice, or maybe he’s been asking this a few times already, because he says, “Am I okay to touch you?”

Oliver gives a short nod.

“Grand. Just...try to focus on me, and just breathe,” he says, and sets a hand on Oliver’s back, gently rubbing circles.

Which might have helped if he doesn’t then crouch beside the chair too, and suddenly Oliver has a faceful of ghost, blood stench and grinning teeth. He yelps, falling back, accidentally kicking Keay in the process, and they just end up a mass of flailing limbs on the floor a bit.

Doesn’t stop his panic, not with the film of blood-taste and smoke and dust on his tongue and his tailbone now hurting to boot. But.

Once he can count his way into breathing again, once it ebbs away, he looks over at Keay’s disgruntled face from where he is on the floor. And something about that, and how Keay himself is still on the floor for no real reason, and maybe the absurdity of all this in general—he laughs. And Keay laughs too.

And it’s...yeah, it’s alright. He should really get up, but the floor is comfortable and also an odd place to be and that’s what he needs. So long as they’re both down here, regular conventions of “normal” conversation don’t apply, and that awkwardness he always feels can’t reassert itself. So here’s fine for now.

“Feeling okay?” Keay asks..

“No.”

“Yeah, that’s fair.”

“Honestly, I think it’s the fact I got a lungful of your ghost that I’m recovering from right now.”

“Oh. Eugh.”

“Mm. It’s...blood? A lot of blood. Not like the...veins or tendrils or whatever. They look a bit like blood vessels and there’s the whole heartbeat thing but none of the...gore. They’re visceral, yes, but...cold. Does that make sense?” Oliver lifts his head, brow furrowed, to look over at Keay. “You know...I just realized. All that talk, and you managed to not say a thing about yourself. Impressive, really. I can never stop.”

“Mm. My shit wouldn’t have helped with your shit. Didn’t seem relevant.”

“When did you get chosen?”

“I didn’t.”

Now Oliver sits up, because that deserves a proper incredulous look. At his lack of response, Keay glances over, still lying flat on his back.

“I didn’t! Despite my mother’s bullshit, I was never meant for any “great destiny” or whatever.”

“The Eye, though? Are you saying you….what? Just. Got involved with it on purpose?”

“Not as bad as some of the others,” Keay says mildly, way too blase about the fact he apparently invited an extra-dimensional evil into his life. Shit, is he a cultist? Maybe he’s a cultist. It occurs to Oliver he’s taking everything Keay has said at face value thus far and that maybe he shouldn’t, because if there’s one thing he doesn’t need right now it’s getting involved in a cult.

Keay must see it in his expression, because Oliver’s never had much of a poker face, and he quickly adds, “Still an evil horror, ‘course, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t need to steal skin or set myself on fire or whatever to make use of it, and it’s not smart to end up in this world without allying yourself with something. Honestly, though, at first...it was just to spite the old witch.”

The set myself on fire bit is made especially interesting given the sliver of stomach Oliver can see from Keay’s jumper riding up. It...looks like maybe he’d tried? Not something Oliver is about to ask though, so instead he latches onto that last bit. Keay’s mentioned “my mother’s bullshit” but not much else and, while Oliver’s pretty convinced she’s the ghost, it doesn’t hurt to see if he can learn more.

“Your, um...your mum?”

“Yep. Always hated the Eye.”

“How come?”

“Eh, long story.”

That Oliver is not going to be hearing, presumably. Fair enough. They’re still strangers, in the end. Even if...oh. Shit. He should come clean about that, shouldn’t he?

“I, um. I should probably tell you. My name? It’s not—”

“I know, Oliver.”

“...Wait, what?”

Keay lifts his hand and points at the painted eye on the wall. “Horrible knowledge and revealed secrets, remember? Kind of its whole thing? Using a fake name’s smart, though.”

“Is it?” Oliver had thought himself clever for the precaution, but Keay saying so just feels patronizing now.

“I mean, it won’t work with a lot of Eye-aligned people, sure, but not all. And there’s shit that’ll steal your name easy as anything and wear it around like a fancy hat, so like...precautions never hurt… ‘Cept when you try them with the wrong thing, then they do.”

“Very fairytale.”

“Ehhhh, some of them do kinda run on fairy logic? Myths and stuff have to come from somewhere, and these things have been around forever. Or, no, not fairy logic, that’s too many rules. Nightmare logic. If it makes emotional sense, that’s how it goes. And it made sense to you to keep your name to yourself, so do that.”

“Not sure how effective that is when you already know my actual name...” Oliver grumbles. And if he isn’t already well aware of how petulant he sounds, Keay’s amused expression as he props himself up on his elbows says it all.

“I mean, I can keep calling you Antonio, if you really want.”

“It’s fine.”

“Or Tony? You could totally suit a Tony.”

“Now you’re just being annoying on purpose.”

Keay barks a laugh. “Lil bit.” Then he pushes himself up to his feet, dusting his hands off with a little scrunch of his nose. “Eugh. Right, anyway. Kept you here with my rambling long enough.”

Oliver knows a cue to leave when he sees one. He gets up, dusts himself off as well, saying, “Hardly rambling if I asked, honestly it’s me taking up your time with all my questions—”

“Didn’t mind. Nice to talk about it with someone who isn’t trying to kill me, really.” He smiles and slides his hands into his trouser pockets, as though he hadn’t just said that. And also as though there is room for more than just his fingers in said absurdly tight trouser pockets. “And hey, if this buys me some favour with the ol’ Grim Reaper…”

Oliver pauses. Lifts his head. “Is...the Grim Reaper actually a thing? Skeleton, scythe, all that?”

“Oooooh, dunno. Wouldn’t be surprised, mind.”

“Reassuring.”

“If you see one, gimme a call, yeah?”

Is that…?

“Sure...Yeah. You, um.” Oliver is too gay for this. “I mean, if I have other questions? Would that be okay to…”

“Yeah, ‘course. And if you have any more ideas about the Ghost of Shitty Parenting Past that’s still around me...Shit, guess I should actually give you a number to call, huh?” Keay opens a desk drawer, rummaging through it for—paper, Oliver thinks, except then he holds out a business card, of all things. Not-quite-black and made of good cardstock, with rounded edges and a smooth surface that is ridiculously pleasing to stroke his thumbs over. Just Pinhole Books embedded in the card and, underneath, what is presumably Keay’s number.

Or, well, the shop number.

“No mobile?”

“Electronics get a little”—and he makes a wobbly motion with his hand—”around me. Still haven’t replaced my last one. Best keep to that.”

Oliver knows a brush-off when he sees one too, and that’s fine. Keay’s done plenty already considering Oliver did sort of kind of stalk him first. Expecting more of him would be unfair. So Oliver tucks the card away with the full expectation he will never use it.

*

He uses it two weeks later after he wakes up from a dream bad enough to power him through the second-guessing. Needs to rescue the card from his trouser pocket, mind, and isn’t it lucky he couldn’t be arsed to do his laundry this whole time and instead left it with the pile of other to-be-washed clothes that swamped the one chair in his bedroom.

Turns out it’s very hard to get on with life and do things like laundry or dishes or what have you when there are horrors beyond human comprehension around every corner. Who knew.

Keay picks up on the third ring with a gruff, “What?” that sends all Oliver’s prepared words scattering.

“I, uh, dream—dead in a dream—”

“What?” he says again, but this is gentler, a genuinely confused question as opposed to a how dare you disturb me.

Oliver takes a deep breath, puts his words all in order again, and says, “This is Oliver. Oliver, um, Banks. With the death dreams? I - I had another one.”

“Oh yeah, hey, Oliver. So someone’s died and/or dying, huh?”

Now it’s the easy conversational tone that throws him. “Um. Yes. But it’s—there was something different.”

“Yeah, not surprised the End would switch things up on you now.”

“...I thought you said they weren’t sentient.”

Calm, calm, it’s fine, he’s fine.

“Mmmmmnot as such. Know how to milk every last bit of discomfort out of people, though.”

Right. Discomfort. “...That’s, ah...another thing I...realised this time.”

“Mm?”

“I’m. I’m never afraid, during them? No fear, no discomfort, no…”

“Hm...Yeah. Makes sense.”

Oliver’s already fairly frayed nerves promptly snap. “If you’re so unsurprised by everything, then you could have, I don’t know...Warned me? Instead of just letting me—”

“Hey, hey, I never said I knew, just that it makes sense.”

“Why! Does it make sense! What does that mean?”

“Yeah, no, not having this conversation till you calm down. And anyway, phone’s a bad place for it. Come by the bookshop.”

And he hangs up, much to Oliver’s frustration and then, once that fizzles out, his mounting mortification because, oh god, he hadn’t meant to do or say any of that.

If not for the fact not going when he’d been explicitly invited seems more rude than just going and apologising, Oliver would have just crawled back in bed. As it is, since it would be rude, and Oliver has enough to be anxious about already, and he did call Keay for a reason, Oliver gets up and puts himself in some sort of order.

Luckily, some of his clothes haven’t been sentenced to the laundry chair yet. Not that Keay would care, but Oliver has always felt more comfortable being neat and well-dressed in public, more likely to be taken seriously, and right now it means at least he looks like his life hasn’t fallen apart.

Shirt crisp, locs pulled back, he ends up at Keay’s door with two cups of tea as apology-slash-something to fortify himself since Keay didn’t offer any tea last time. They are not, notably, from the coffee shop across the street, which he actively avoids looking at. Luckily Keay is there quickly, clattering down the stairs and yanking the door open. The ghost looms bigger, slightly more opaque. Oliver tries not to look at it and directs his smile at Keay as he offers up the tea.

“Uh...thanks, I guess,” he says, and gestures Oliver in.

“I didn’t know if you did dairy or not, so the one on the left has milk, right has soy milk, take whichever and I’ll have the other. Oh, and I brought sugar packets.”

Keay has a very confused smile. After a few moments, he takes the soy, which leads Oliver to wonder if he knew Oliver did actively prefer the milk option, grabs three packets of sugar, and leads the way upstairs again, into the office where the Eye watches.

The ghost is opaque almost all the way, although Oliver couldn’t say what colour it is nor what that means. At least the stench of it is less intense.

Like last time, Keay perches on the desk and Oliver takes the singular chair. The stuff that had been swept off of it is still on the floor.

“So. Your dream,” Keay says, uncapping the tea. He tears all three sugar packets open and pours them in at the same time. “Tell me how it goes from the start.”

Oliver does.

It’s fresher in his mind now and, where last time he’d given the broad strokes of the landscape, he gives details now. The roads he—walked down isn’t the word. Glided? No, not right either. It was like a camera, panning closer where he needed to go, just as soon as he decided it.

“What makes you decide where to go?” Keay asks, and Oliver pauses.

“I...I guess I don’t, actually. Or at least it’s not a conscious decision. Maybe it was before? I think it was. I remember talking myself into going inside the Barclay’s building—I used to work there and, by the end, needed to psych myself up just to get on the train. I remember thinking something similar then.”

“Not this time?”

“No...I just knew, I suppose. Or wanted to?”

“Hm.”

He slurps his tea noisily—did he even stir it?—and gestures for Oliver to keep going.

Panning down the street, up a building—he quickly tugs out his notebook to squint at the address, which he’d scribbled down as soon as he woke—and to a home where the tendrils felt...strange. Still that cold certainty, still thrumming, but it was like there was another tune underneath the usual rhythm of the dream, quiet but irritating and, now that he knew it was there, ever-present. Like the hum of electronics meets the world’s worst earworm.

Oliver followed it, and found the tendrils covering a person entirely. Not like car crash victims; those, the vines piled over them to form a tremendous bulk. This person was covered by tendrils in their precise shape and size, as though forming another person who suffocated the life out of them.

“It isn’t a murder—or not just a murder. I’ve seen murdered people before. It’s—what I see is cause of death, not the people involved.”

“And this...scared you? That it’s something you hadn’t seen before?”

“...No. Well, when I woke up, yes, but not - not in the dream. Like I said on the phone, there was no fear, no distress. At the time I was mostly just…”

“Just…?”

“I don’t know how to...It felt normal? Or not—” Oliver takes a deep breath. Waking words are inadequate to describe it, but he does know what would be closest, for all he keeps dancing around the word. “It felt right. Like….that was how things were supposed to be.”

He meets Keay’s gaze squarely.

“It’s...supposed to be scaring me. Right? That’s the whole point. And I - I mean I guess it’s freaked me out now but that’s...it’s not the death that I’m scared of. Kind of got used to those, I guess. “

“You’re scared of yourself,” Keay says. Like that doesn’t just flay Oliver open.

Oliver doesn’t trust himself with words, so he says nothing.

And Keay keeps going.

"You're scared of what it means. If the End isn't feeding off of your trauma, then what does it want with you? Right?”

Oliver lines his fingertips up with the seam of his cup and pretends he can’t feel Keay’s eyes (or Eyes) on him. The warmth between his palms helps, but Keay doesn’t fill the silence this time. He kicks his legs back and forth and drinks his tea and watches Oliver and waits, seemingly content to let it fester.

The thing is...Oliver thinks he knows what it wants. What it’s doing. He’d figured it himself, hadn’t he, before Keay came along with his much gentler End-touched.

He tries to focus on his breathing and can only hear the rhythm of his heartbeat.

“I...I can see the veins when I’m awake too,” Oliver admits, mostly to escape the sound. “I couldn’t at first.”

“But you can now.”

“Yeah.”

“Since before our talk.”

“What, those spooky eye powers didn’t tell you that much? You already know, so why are you making me say it, Gerard?”

“Sometimes things need to be said. You’ve been seeing the veins when you’re awake since before our talk, right?”

“Yes…I have. I was scared of that too.” The beat is loud in his ears. His face prickles hot. “Because if I’m seeing them awake then maybe I’ll stop being freaked out eventually soon, maybe I’ll get used to it, maybe I’ll—”

“Mhm?”

“...Like it.” Two beats. “You said the Fears manifested in people. Representatives. That - that sometimes things just appear, and sometimes people seek it out, give themselves up to it… But I didn’t do that, so why is it…”

Oliver should have asked what manifestations mean. How they’re made. Although does it make a difference, really? He already knew an unknowable fear monster was feeding off of him, and would possibly one day consume him entirely. Is it any worse to know the unknowable fear monster is going to spit him back out when it’s done?

And there’s no stopping it either, is there?

“It’s turning me into something. Isn’t it?”

“Not yet,” Keay says. He puts a firm hand on Oliver’s shoulder, squeezes it lightly. “Right! Where did you say that address was?”

*

Without the orange glow of his dreamscape, the building looks dull in real life. It’s teeming with life, a different one in every window, but that still doesn’t stop it from feeling muted. Keay strides up to the intercom and stares at it for a long, uncomfortable moment, presumably divining which one will get them through.

He still isn’t sure what Keay plans to do, if anything. Maybe he just wants to see for himself, with whatever sight the Eye has afforded him. Maybe it’s nothing more than morbid curiosity.

Or maybe he can stop it. Maybe he can do something to keep the End away from that guy. It’s never worked before, but Oliver didn’t know what Keay does, and this time it’s a supernatural death. Maybe that makes a difference.

Oliver could ask, but he isn’t sure he wants the answer.

Keay manages to get through to someone and, with a gruff voice, says he’s here about a complaint. Whether the details he provides are real or just close enough to be convincing, they’re in. Up the stairs, one floor and then the next and then—

Promptly smacks into Keay when he stops and backtracks, which means Oliver goes through the ghost and has the unpleasant sense of being doused in cold, filthy water.

“Ugh, please stop shoving your mother's ghost in my face,” Oliver says, grimacing.

“Not like I’m doing it on purpose,” Keay shoots back. “Bit difficult to be aware of my ghostly hitchhiker when I can’t see her—fuck, I hate the fact that’s a sentence that applies to my life now. Like, it was already pretty weird, but—”

“Never mind. Why did you stop?”

“Oh. Right, yeah.” And he steps back down to the second floor, stands in the hallway looking at the closed doors, and just tilts his head. “You’re sure it was the third floor, right?”

“Yes? Is there anything…Are you seeing something?”

“Yeah, think it might be worth checking out that flat when we’re done.”

For all his confidence, Oliver loses his words as soon as the person they’re here to talk to actually opens their door. In his defense, he had been expecting some pushback or distrust once they spoke, but not a right off the bat, “The fuck you want?”

“I, um, I - I’m sorry for the disturbance, I—we were only—

It’s hard to see through their thick, dark beard, but they’re scowling already, which only deepens when their gaze slides over to Keay, with his boots and his piercings and his showing roots. Keay steps in anyway to ask about the book and Oliver is more than happy to let him take over, but unsurprisingly, the person isn’t any more receptive to him than he was to Oliver. They insist they have no idea what Keay is on about, doesn’t appreciate the prank, has had enough of these bloody students and their bloody friends come to ruin his day, and in fact got so vehement about it that Oliver is falling over himself to apologise as soon as the door slams shut.

“I must’ve gotten it wrong or something. I don’t know how, but...” His face and neck feel uncomfortably hot but it’s fine, he’s fine, mistakes are alright to make and it’s hardly as though he knows what he’s doing, so he’ll just try to make it up to Keay and that will be that. “I’m so sorry. Maybe it’s the next building? Or—no, never mind, the next time I dream I’ll—”

“Shh, no. Think I know what’s going on. You only see the deaths and get a feel for the causes, yeah? Follow me.”

Keay clatters down to the second floor, where he follows his own tendrils—or, well, however that manifests for him—to the door of a bunch of students. Asked if any of them had bought a weird book recently or been acting a bit odd, the students direct them to their flatmate, huddled away in a corner of her room.

As soon as they step in, Keay hisses between his teeth and says, “Ooh, yeah, don’t blame you.”

“Was that, um...for me, or...did you mean her?”

“Her, although it goes for you both, I guess. Notice the weird decor?”

If by decor Keay means the fabric explosion, then yes, yes Oliver does notice it. When he takes a moment to really observe it, he realises it isn’t just haphazard coverings or a uni student stowing her laundry wherever it will go. T-shirts, skirts, towels, they’re all covering something. There’s something on the wall that Oliver assumes is a mirror, and on the desk that’s clearly a computer screen. Maybe picture frames too? And her clock? And, now that he’s closer, the bottom of her window has a bunch more fabric bunched up underneath the already close-drawn curtains.

She still hasn’t looked at them, nor does she respond when they address her.

“I…can’t see tendrils?” Oliver says, although he isn’t sure who he’s trying to reassure with that.

“Worse things to be than just dead,” Keay says, so the reassurance is moot anyway. He gestures to the student with his chin. “Hey. I’ll buy the book off you. From the library of Jurgen Leitner, right?”

And it’s like life has been breathed into her. Eyes wide, she lifts her head to look at them.

“You’ll take it?”

“We will.”

“And everything with it, right? You’ll take all the rest? I—no, no I shouldn’t let you, you don’t—I was going to give it back to the charity shop, but then someone else might have read it, and I can’t do that to someone else, I shouldn’t. I want to. You’ll take it?”

“Yep. And I’ll destroy it so no one else has to read it either. How’s that sound?”

“I tried,” she says. “I tore it to pieces. The pieces are still in that bin.”

She points and Oliver follows her finger to where a dress is draped over a metal wastepaper basket. He plucks it up and, yes, looks like there are pages. Underneath is a sliver of green, presumably its cover. “Oh. Well...that sorts that, I suppose?”

“It came back...It keeps. Coming. Back.”

“Well, if it does, it’ll come back to me, this time. That’s how it works. I buy it off you, it haunts me. S’all good.”

It turns out she had been sitting on the book, which she kept in a shoebox, reasoning that if she couldn’t destroy it she could at least try to keep it from being read. Oliver doesn’t know how long she’s been sat there, or how she managed to sleep or eat or go to the bathroom, and feels it’s probably a bad idea to ask. Last thing she needs is to panic that she might not have done enough if she had gotten up and left the book. Just asking her what it did sent her into enough of a spiral as it is. He doesn’t want a repeat.

She’s willing to sell it for basically nothing at all, but as they’re heading out, Keay pulls an envelope from his jacket and sets it on her desk. And then he leaves, book box in hand.

It feels like they should say something, though. Oliver dithers in her doorway a moment longer, opening his mouth, thinking better of it, closing it, trying again. Keay calls his name and startles him out of it, so that all he can say is, “I hope you feel better,” before hurrying to catch up.

At least it means he doesn’t start kicking himself about it until he’s outside of their flat.

Hope you feel better, of all the hollow nonsense.

He finds Keay stretched out on the stairs, drumming his fingers on the box in his lap.

“We aren’t leaving?” Oliver asks.

“Sure, in a bit. Didn’t want you to miss your first Leitner.”

He lifts the lid and Oliver finds himself leaning in, all the better to see.

It’s a surprisingly thin book, with a green hardcover that looks pristine, especially with the contrast of Keay’s chipped nail polish as he trails his fingers over it—not what he should be noticing right now, but it’s hard not to. In reflective silver lettering are the words The Life of Dr. Rising.

“I figure whatever’s in this book was going to finish up with that kid and get started on the grump upstairs. Feels...Stranger, I think. Or Spiral? One of those.”

Oliver glances from the book to Keay and says, “Huh.”

“Not what you were expecting?” Keay says.

He flips the book open and sneers briefly at what he sees, but Oliver doesn’t look away. Because for the first time since he met Gerard Keay, there is no ghost around his shoulders.

“It may just look like a book, but these things will fuck you up if you give ‘em half a chance. Or is it that you were expecting a spookier re—”

“The ghost is gone.”

Keay snaps the book shut. “What?”

Oliver gestures to the empty space over Keay’s head. “She’s gone. I can’t see her.” A beat. “Do you think the book…?”

“What? Ate her?” Keay says. He shakes his head and huffs a laugh. “Don’t think I’m that lucky.”

“Or...Maybe the book interacted with the ghost in some way,” Oliver says. Theorising is better than admitting there are even more things he doesn’t know, but also...It just seems unfair. Keay was here helping to save—or, well, hopefully save?—a random stranger based on nothing more than Oliver’s dream, at no prompting from Oliver, and now there’s more weird Death bullshit happening.

...Is this because Oliver had warned him? Is the End or whatever taking that bit of insight away?

Is something else going to happen?

“Well, whether your boss has something new in store for me or whatever else it is, it’ll have to wait.”

They burn the book a short way away, Keay having walked until he found the right random alley and tugged Oliver into it. The fact he carries lighter fluid in his coat is somehow not a surprise. Oliver glances over at the mouth of the alley every time someone passes by, sure they’ll be asked what the fuck they’re doing, and otherwise keeps stealing glances at the empty space over Keay’s head. Keay never takes his eyes off the pages until they’re ash, and then stomps on the ash for good measure.

“There,” he says, cheerful as anything. “Takes care of that.”

It’s just so strange, the space where the ghost should be. There isn’t a leftover gap or anything, it isn’t a cutout...but it feels like there should be? It’s probably just that Oliver has never seen Keay without it. Probably.

Oliver lingers on the strange emptiness a moment too long, and he can tell because the silence stretches to match. Keay’s smile is rueful, and that feels somehow Oliver’s fault. He grasps for the first thing he can think of.

“What’s it look like for you? You were following something to her flat.”

“Really? That's what you’re asking? Not, did we actually save the person you dreamed about, none of that?”

Why would he? It’s never worked before, why should it start now? They got to maybe destroy an evil book in the bargain and that’s fine, that’s enough, he’ll take it.

Oliver shrugs. “Figured you’d say you don’t know. And anyway, if I dream again I can check for myself.”

And anyway, part of him doesn’t want to know.

“Guess so.”

Keay shoves his hands in his pockets and nods for Oliver to walk with him as he explains. He talks in colours and gradients, overlaid messily like a child painting the world in real-time. Except sometimes there’s several of them, one over the other over the other, layers on a painting and he has x-ray vision and sees them all simultaneously.

Sounds pretty.

“Sounds exhausting,” Oliver says.

“S’not that bad. Helps I can turn it on and off—or...I think of it like...sinking into it?”

Explains the head-tilt. Oliver feels he should probably keep that to himself, but he can feel the side of his mouth twitch, and Keay sees it and, of course, asks, so Oliver tells him, miming the lean and tilt.

Keay laughs. “Fuck, really? Talk about tells. Any other insights you want to share?”

Not really, but mostly because Oliver feels it’s probably a bad idea to talk about weird powers and eldritch beings on the tube. Keay seems to have no such compunctions, or maybe even wants them to hear, because he prods Oliver whenever he falls silent and, reluctant at first but less so at Keay’s encouragement, Oliver keeps talking. Tells him how the people in his dreams look like and when the dreams started and—

Without talking about it or agreeing to it, they find their way back to Pinhole Books. The rigid tension in Keay’s back as he opens the door is when Oliver realises Keay’s scared.

The door opening to reveal a small, bald woman covered in markings and wrongwrongwrongwrong when Oliver realises why.

For a few moments, none of them do more than look at each other. Under her pale gaze, Oliver feels her judgment at every little fault in him, from the new growth frizz he hasn’t retwisted yet to the scuff of his trainers. She smells of ink and blood and when she bared her teeth in what was ostensibly a smile, Oliver knows it for the threat it is.

He is not welcome.

“What a treat,” she said, tooth-rottingly sweet. “My Gerard doesn’t often have friends over. Won’t you introduce me to your friend, Gerard?” “No,” Keay says.

Oliver expects him to shut the door and turn back, but Keay steps through, shouldering past the seemingly very solid Mary Keay. She tsks but doesn’t stop him, and that leaves just her and Oliver.

“Do excuse him. He can be such a rude boy.” she says.”Fancy coming in? Could make you a nice cup of tea and you could tell me about yourself, since my Gerard couldn’t be bothered to introduce us.”

“It’s alright, wouldn’t want to bother you, another time maybe, bye!”

He says it basically all in one breath and turns on his heel without waiting for her response.

Her laugh chases him all the way back to the tube station.

*

Oliver calls the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. The urgency to know what’s happening wins out over his usual phone anxiety, and when the phone picks up on the third day to a saccharine voice and then a sharp sound before the line goes dead, at least he knows she’s still there.

It’s twelve days before Oliver gets Keay on the other end, an irritated, “Fuck’s sake, Oliver, what?”

Relief floods him. So does the phone anxiety.

“Oh, er, I just...I guess I was—never mind, I’ll let you—”

The phone crackles with the sound of an exhale. “It’s fine,” Keay says, having calmed himself.

“She’s, um...gone, then?”

“I mean, she’s probably still hanging off of me like a fucking leech but...yeah, the...solid form, I guess, that’s gone.”

“Good. That’s...good.”

“Guess so.”

Silence ticks by, one and two, and then both of them at the same time go:

“Was there anything—”

“Do you want to—”

And Keay laughs. “Okay, clearly there is something you want. Had another dream?”

“No.”

Although Oliver feels a bit foolish now, because it’s not like they’re friends or anything. They’ve met all of two times and it’s hardly his fault Keay’s being haunted.

It wasn’t Keay’s fault that girl got an eldritch book either, though, and he still did what he could. So.

“I know you can’t really get away with her, but I’m guessing you maybe want to get out of that flat?”

“...What’re you asking, here?”

He’s already taken the plunge. He can do the rest. “Could grab a coffee or something? Go for a walk? Do literally anything that doesn’t have to do with spooky monsters and ghosts?”

“Why?”

“You don’t have to, you realise.”

“I’m aware of that,” Keay says. “I’m asking what you get out of it.”

“Well. What did you get out of telling me about the Entities and listening to me ramble about my dream?”

“Huh.”

Silence again. It’s on the tip of Oliver’s tongue to just say never mind, silly idea, have a good day, but silence isn’t a no, despite what the brainweasels say. Keay has the right to the time to think. So he swallows down the never mind, breathes, and waits.

Finally, Keay says, “Dunno if I can handle people just yet, but a one-on-one might be okay. Is it rude if I invite myself over?”

“To, uh—”

“Your place, yeah.”

“Oh. Yeah, no, that’s—if you want, that’s fine. Do...you already know where it is or…?”

“Nah, the Eye didn’t see fit to make me that creepy. Lemme grab a paper.”

*

The upside to having seen the state of Pinhole Books is that Oliver feels slightly less worried about someone seeing his flat than he usually would. He only panic-cleans a little bit, and spends the rest of the time until Keay gets there asking himself what he thinks he’s doing.

Seeing Keay look just as unsure as Oliver feels is a slight consolation, but then instead of a greeting or small-talk or literally anything else, Oliver goes and says, “The ghost’s back,” before he’s even through the door. The way Keay’s face falls says that he’d hoped it wouldn’t be the case, although the wry twist of his mouth a moment later also says that he probably realises he should’ve known better.

“Figured she was tied to me somehow. Makes sense. Shoes on or off?”

“Uh…” Oliver blinks, because not having had a guest in ages apparently means he’s forgotten all about what it means to have a new person in your space and the sort of things they might want to know. “Oh. Um, off, please.”

Once Keay’s taken off his boots (and lines them up neatly against the wall, which is very pleasing), he makes himself comfortable on the sofa, his arm stretched over its back and taking up all the space in the world. It looks confident, but Oliver thinks he can see tension in that exaggerated sprawl. He knows an attempt at masking anxiety when he sees it.

He can’t tell, though, whether it’s oh no new space anxiety or my mother is haunting me anxiety or even is this guy going to try and kill me in accordance to his weird eldritch god’s whims anxiety, which makes it hard to figure out what to do about it. He just goes down the check-list: tell him where the bathroom is if he needs it, offer drinks, bring out said drinks, settle in for small-talk—

Except what sort of small-talk is really appropriate here? Seen any monsters lately?

Oliver tries the weather and Keay snorts and says, “Seriously? Come on, Oliver, you didn’t invite me to chat about the weather.”

“Well. I just thought you might want a break from...” Oliver gestures vaguely and sighs, exasperated, when Keay copies the gesture. “You know what I mean.”

“Sure I do. And yeah, would be nice to have a break from the horrors that plague the world and my every waking moment,” Keay says, and then smiles, tired. He looks so tired. “But I can’t exactly put the monsters away in a drawer until I’m ready to play with them again, can I?”

Oliver looks from Gerard Keay’s wan smile to the bags under his eyes to the ghost, too translucent to see her grin yet but with the knowledge it’s there. Waiting.

They could have all the small-talk they want and the real world would still be out there. Waiting.

He thinks of the unanswered texts inviting him to games nights and dinners and friends’ first fifth tenth shows, of promise upon broken promise to visit his dad more. He thinks of the surety that he will go and he will see veins and then he will have to explain this, all of this, only to have them think he’s having another breakdown.

He thinks of the polite so, how’s the...shop? and what have you been doing? and the fact they’ll expect an answer and how that makes him recoil almost more than the thought of the veins.

He thinks of My Gerard, and being prompted on the tube to keep going, keep talking.

He says, “Talking to regular people is hard, huh?”

Keay sorts. “You really calling yourself a regular person?”

“No…” Oliver figures it’s time to admit that. “No, I guess not. And that’s why you’re here, I take it.”

One truth in exchange for another. Seems only fair.

Keay taps his rings against the side of his mug, one at a time, over and over again. It takes him a while to put the words together, and when he has them, he doesn’t look at Oliver, “I used to try and run away, when I was a kid. Pack some sandwiches, nick money from her purse, get myself a train ticket and I was home free. Easy as anything. I thought I was pretty clever, but in hindsight I’m pretty sure she knew what I was up to. Didn’t matter, though. Two weeks tops and I’d come home.”

“It’s like they’re living in an entirely different world,” Oliver offers.

“They don’t see. Like, even aside from whatever fuckery an Entity is playing with their perception. Something weird can happen right in front of them and they’ll still tell you there’s a reasonable explanation for it all.”

“It’s easier, I think. The world’s already plenty scary without...all that.”

“Is it, though?”

“Was a time I couldn’t even go on the train that passed by my old job without having a panic attack,” Oliver says. “It doesn’t have to be an unknowable horror beyond human comprehension to be scary.”

He shrugs a shoulder but he meets Keay’s gaze flat, daring him to say anything.

All Keay says is, “Makes sense,” and Oliver feels a little tension unfurl.

It’s easier after that.

*

When Oliver dreams again, he has to fight to remember that he wanted to see someone specific, and again to remember where to check. When he finds the building, at least, he does not see the girl with the Leitner, nor does he see her rude upstairs neighbour. He isn’t sure what that means yet, but he isn’t getting his hopes up.

He does not talk to Gerard about it.

Instead, their meet-ups are filled with tentative questions about their days, their dreams, declared uneventful, until they settle into the easy routine of taking the piss out of Oliver’s day job because that’s bullshit magic, and then Gerard explaining that there’s, ennnh, not quite real magic but close enough? And then Oliver filling in all of the pop-culture holes Gerard inexplicably has.

Dungeons and Dragons? He knows all about that. The entire genre of young adult magical school books? Not so much.

Oliver has to quickly chew and swallow his mouthful of shawarma purely to say, “You have a bookshop. How have you never heard of—”

“Do we look like we sell fiction?” Gerard replies past his food, having no such compunctions.

“You can’t just sell esoteric occult books, that’s not a viable business model.”

“You can if they’re rare as fuck and expensive as fuck. Especially if they’re the real deal. If Mum wasn’t always buying new ones for her personal collection and trying to find Leitners and all that, she could’ve retired ages ago.”

The Oliver Banks who worked his arse off in uni to graduate with a first so he could get a good job and a stable future is silently appalled. The Oliver Banks who has just gotten a crash-course in what the real deal means acknowledges it probably isn’t actually worth the money.

“Well, alright. Fair. But you don’t have to sell books to read them.”

“Mm, Mum thought reading fiction was a waste of time.” He sets his wrap down and straightens up and, heedless of the fact they’re in public, puts on a high, exaggerated old-lady voice to say, “Don’t want to fill your mind with all that nonsense, Gerard. Here, have some more brain-breaking esoteric nonsense instead, there’s a good heir to my evil legacy.”

At this point, Oliver knows these asides aren’t meant to elicit sympathy, nor does Gerard know what to do with sympathy if Oliver offers it. They’re just matter-of-fact. He gets the sense that when Mary Keay said Gerard didn’t have many friends, she meant any. Oliver’s met anxious ramblers. Gerard isn’t anxious about this. He just doesn’t know, or maybe knows and doesn’t care, about how people would usually keep talk of their actually pretty shitty upbringing to just close friends.

Or maybe he’s already decided to count Oliver as close friends. Which...considering they’ve met all of a handful of times should maybe be more concerning than it is. Oliver just finds himself looking up at Mary Keay’s ghost, the beginnings of a smile on his mouth at Gerard’s extremely bad impression.

“And D&D wasn’t? A waste of time, I mean.”

“Oh, yeah, ‘course it was. Easier to read that in stops and starts, though. No story to catch up on.”

Oliver is slammed with the image of a much smaller, scrawnier, and yet still somehow Goth Gerard Keay, hiding a Player’s Handbook under his pillow. It’s unfairly endearing. “You, Gerard, are overdue some movie marathons. There’s—”

“Gerry,” he says.

Oliver blinks. “Sure. Yeah. I don’t think magic schools will be quite your speed, Gerry, but if you’re into D&D, you definitely need to see the Lord of the Rings… And actually, I think there was a Dungeons and Dragons movie too? Absolute shit, mind, but could be fun.”

“Well, with that shining recommendation…”

They aren’t quite at the point where Oliver could have Gerry in his space for the consecutive nine-plus hours it would take to shotgun all of the Lord of the Rings in one day, but they manage it over three consecutive days instead. Gerry swings by after Oliver’s shift with takeaway, boots neatly by the door again, and folds himself onto Oliver’s sofa.

He even manages to convince Gerry to watch the Dungeons and Dragons movie next. It is, as expected, absolute shit, but there’s something to be said for Jeremy Irons hamming it up that much, and Gerry seems to enjoy the opportunity to snark at the screen.

It’s enough for Oliver to brave suggesting some other movies, and for Gerry to agree. And when he doesn’t show, no explanation, it’s enough to keep Oliver from immediately spiralling into what it might mean or what he might have done or or or.

When Mary Keay has fucked off again, a little over two weeks later, they pick up the movies again. Gerry starts off tense and slowly relaxes until, halfway through, Oliver hears a snore from the other end of the sofa.

Oliver lets him sleep. It looks like he needs it.

*

It’s lucky Oliver gets the dream on a night Gerry has crashed on his sofa again. It means he can just stumble out and wake Gerry up and blurt the dream right then and there, so fresh it’s still pulsing behind his eyelids.

“Wait, sorry, can you—”

“They stop existing,” Oliver says. “I’ve never seen someone stop existing—and they know they’re not existing, and I don’t know if it’s the shock of that that kills them or—”

“Oliver, calm down. Shh, that’s it. Breathe. Breathe. It’s okay.”

“That’s the problem, don’t…”

Gerry withdraws his hand quickly and the flash of guilt on his face is enough that Oliver closes his eyes. At least the orange behind them has faded by now. He counts on the inhale, counts on the exhale, scales them up until his heart isn’t trying to scrabble up his throat any more.

When he opens his eyes, Gerry is sat at the edge of the armchair opposite him, hunched over with elbows braced on his knees. Both elbows and knees have eyes; plain, black, staring wide. Stripped down for sleep, Oliver can see he’s covered with them, but there’s none of the weight of being Watched just now. Just them.

And the ghost of Mary Keay coiled around his shoulders. Gerry has eyes there too, barely visible underneath her form at this point in the cycle. The eyes don’t seem to bother her in the least. Is that always, or just when she’s closer to manifesting solidly again?

“Hey,” Gerry says, soft. “You with me?”

“Yes…” Oliver realises he’s been leaning to the side to see where the ghost overlaps with Gerry’s tattoos and actually looks at his face. “Sorry. I...It’s the—”

“The ghost, yeah. How’s she looking?”

“More opaque...Can’t smell the blood yet, though.”

“Good. Gives us a couple of days, I guess. Think you can identify where your disappearing guy might be?”

Oliver looks around a moment for his phone before his brain catches up with him and he remembers, right, it’s charging on his bedside. Gerry hands him a pen and paper before he can get up, and Oliver quickly scribbles through what he remembers of the route he took.

“I don’t know if it was a Leitner,” he murmurs. “It didn’t...it felt similar to that person with the book but not the same. And I don’t know if that’s because each of them has its own thing going on or—”

“I can deal with more than just Leitners, you know,” Gerry says. “I’m a pretty talented guy.”

Oliver can hear the grin in his voice, and knows that’s probably just to try and make Oliver feel better. It doesn’t, but he appreciates the sentiment nonetheless.

“Gerry...It felt...When I saw it—Usually in the dream I feel...nothing. I feel like this is just...how things are.”

“Not this time?”

“Interesting. I thought...I looked at that person, at the veins that filled in the missing parts of them and were slowly crawling over the rest, and I thought, Interesting. It felt inevitable and right and satisfying and it’s getting worse, it’s getting faster. Are we doing something wrong? Feeding more into it? Is this because I’m—because we tried to save that—fuck.

Gerry has no answer to that, and it looks like it kills him.

You don’t stop death. Mary Keay tried and here she is, little more than an amorphous shadow half of the time. He’s just going to keep dreaming, until dreams swallow his reality and the End swallows him and—

“Hey, hey, no, stay with me. It wasn’t going to give up from saving one person, come on,” Gerry says. “We just keep fighting.”

Oliver laughs and it comes out as more of a squeak, can’t help it. Gerry frowns and, leaning forward, clasps both of Oliver’s hands between his. “Look, it doesn’t need an avatar who keeps fighting it. What use are you then? So we keep fighting.”

He glances up at the clock.

“First thing in the morning. For now, you go back to sleep while I find your disappearing person.”

Oliver sleeps right there on the sofa. He is occasionally aware of things, like the sun peeking in before Gerry draws the blinds, like the smell of coffee and smoke that says Gerry’s gone out for a morning(?) smoke, like footfalls back and forth and back and forth.

When he finally pulls himself upright and into something resembling wakefulness, Gerry drops a plastic bag in his lap. Just a ridiculous number of M&S sandwiches and, slightly crushed underneath, pastries. Gerry can’t cook for toffee, so it isn’t surprising he’d have gone to the nearest shop to pick something up. Not what Oliver himself would have preferred, but it beats having to get up and make something himself, so he grabs the first sandwich he sees. Gerry slides a cup of tea his way before he’s done unwrapping it.

“Oh, cheers,” Oliver says. “Sorry for, uh—”

“I found him,” Gerry says. He’s bright-eyed and slightly frayed in that way that suggests he’s had one too many coffees. “Got an appointment at two. I’m heading to the bookstore to prep some stuff and change. If you wanna come with, I can pick you up first.”

“Yeah, I’m coming.”

A glance at the clock says he has just over two hours. It occurs to him he had a shift he completely blew past, but he can deal with that later. Right now he can just about handle food and a shower and getting dressed, although it’s extremely tempting to go through the day as he is right now, pyjamas and sleeping cap and all.

A touch to his knee makes him look up at Gerry.

“We’ll get this thing,” he says. “Whatever it is.”

Oliver thinks of the Leitner, burnt to ash, and the empty space that should have been that person’s death in his dream, and decides he’d like to believe it.

*

Their victim’s name is David Ramao, and he is married to an antiques dealer. He bustles, worried, to and fro outside of his husband’s open office door, trying and failing to be discreet. It’s irritating, but Oliver understands why.

The antiques dealer, André Ramao, is...haggard is an understatement. Even compared to Gerry, who got about three hours of sleep last night at a generous estimate, and Oliver, who had slept so long after that dream he’d overshot restfulness and ended up at exhausted again, André looks the worst out of the three of them.

He goes from haunted to hostile as Gerry prattles on, doing his best I-am-a-serious-business-guy impersonation while at the same time probing about books, maybe any recent acquisitions that have been giving him any difficulty. The Eye apparently hasn’t seen fit to give him more than that to go on.

André’s responses are getting more and more curt. David passes by the office door again.

Oliver feels like his brain is too crowded but this isn’t about him, this is about David not getting disappeared. He can see it, still, too clearly, the tendrils twisting and turning, overlapping, branching. It would be easy to trace the paths of those veins and go nowhere.

That was something, wasn’t it? Tied to a Fear?

Although usually Oliver stays out of this, he can see plainly that Gerry’s bluster isn’t holding water here. It’s a long shot, but he ventures with, “I think perhaps we have some items mixed up, Gerry. Forgive us, Mr. Ramao, I think we’re actually here about, ah, something with a particularly mesmerising pattern?”

And André Ramao’s face lights up.

“You mean the vase?” he says, tremulous, hopeful.

Gerry smacks his forehead. “The vase! Yeah, ‘course. Sorry, this isn’t the first stop we’re making today and all the things got a bit mixed up. Yeah, think some emails got a bit...lost?”

“You’re here to buy the vase.”

“Yep.”

André is out of the office a bare second later, and returns with his arms full of a blue-glazed vase. Oliver follows the pattern with his eyes, trying to see if it’s the same as his dream even though he can feel the wrongness in it, but he needs to be sure, he—

A sharp pain in his side snaps him out of it and Gerry, having just elbowed him, shakes his head, warning. Oliver does his best not to look at the vase again.

Gerry pays an eye-watering amount for it, cash no less, and they’re on their way. Just. Carrying a giant fuck-off vase between them. Gerry throws his leather coat over it so Oliver can stop looking off to the side and actually focus on his feet while they bring it down the stairs. It’s awkward enough with their height difference.

“God, Gerry, I didn’t realise it would cost so much.” Or that Gerry would just buy it as opposed to...doing literally anything else. Sure, that’s how he dealt with the Leitner as well, but he’d figured that Leitner would have just come back to the girl otherwise. He hadn’t realised his method of fighting the supernatural would just end up being throwing money at it. “Look, I’ll. Well, I can’t pay you back right now, but I can—”

“How ‘bout you just help me take this home and we’ll call it even?”

“We are very much not even.”

“Yeah, because there’s nothing to pay me back.”

“You wouldn’t have been here if not for me.”

“Sure. And one of that lovely couple would’ve been eaten by an evil vase. Dunno about you, but that sounds like a fair trade.”

Down the stairs and into a cab before they can be stopped for carrying a giant suspicious item and then out of that and (after a brief interlude of Gerry fumbling to get his keys out and Oliver pretending he doesn’t know the Watchers in the cafe across the street are gossiping furiously about this) up another flight of stairs, which neither of their backs are too happy about.

As soon as they back it into Gerry’s room, Gerry says, “Mind your feet. Letting it go in three, two…”

And they drop it in the middle of the floor. Oliver would have expected to hear a crack but supernatural vases are apparently more resilient than that.

“How’s old Mumsy doing?” Gerry says, stretching his arms over his head.

The ghost grins through his flesh.

“Um. Bit stronger.”

“Best get to it, then. Fancy sticking around to see if whatever lives in the vase comes to play?”

“I, uh…Sure. If—I mean, obviously I wouldn't want to be in the way or anything.”

“Nah. You can be my sidekick for the day. Or, well, actually, I’m your sidekick on this one, huh?”

“Not...sure I’d go that far.”

“Fine, we can both be superheroes. Now, if you’re sticking around, you might want to pull your hair back,” Gerry says, and tugs a hairband off of his wrist, which he holds out to Oliver. “Then grab me a chisel, yeah? Third drawer on the right.”

Gerry’s room is surprisingly sparse, now that he has a moment to look around, enough that even the usual disarray isn’t actually enough to make any clutter. Most of it is art supplies. And then there’s a shelf of fantasy paperbacks, every one of them either a title Oliver mentioned or something they’ve watched.

Oliver smiles to himself as he ties his hair up, but this isn’t the time to tease Gerry about that. He grabs the chisel from the drawer and hands it over, then helps Gerry spread a giant roll of paper out on the floor. A large stylised eye stares up from it, words too small for Oliver to read scribbled within the iris. There is a weight to that gaze.

“Alright. We need to flip it over onto that eye, but don’t look too closely.”

“Spiral vs the End, who would win?”

“Not us, either way,” Gerry says. Oliver takes his place on the other side of the vase. “Pulling the coat off, you ready?”

When Oliver nods, Gerry whips the coat off and, looking to the side, they turn it upside down so its mouth covers the eye. Or the Eye covers its mouth.

Gerry gets to work right away, chiselling along and out of the vase’s lines, little breaks that he then has Oliver paint over in black. When the paint slides off halfway, Gerry groans.

“Figures. Can never be easy, can it?” he says, and throws his coat over the vase again.

The process is lengthy and bizarre. Chiselling is still involved, except now so is blood (from Gerry’s pricked finger, so not a lot of it but...still), quiet chanting under his breath, and also turning the lights off at the precisely correct moment and for a very specific amount of time, no longer.

When Oliver turns the lights on the third time after nine seconds of darkness, the pattern that had been in the vase is now shot through with black paint. Slowly, the lines bleed, like an ink spill. Gerry does not stop chanting. Closer, now, Oliver can make out the words.

English. All of this, and just plain old English. He’s not even sure why this is surprising. What did he expect? Latin? Some Satanic language from beyond the veil? Ia, ia, Cthulhu fhtagn?

Gerry’s mouth twitches, though he doesn’t stop, nor does he look away from the vase. The prospect he might just… know what Oliver is thinking is...Nope, if he starts dwelling on that, he’ll never stop. Oliver just needs to not think about silly things and it will be fine and then—

There is a thunk, a great hollow sound.

Gerry speaks faster.

“Grant us the sight that we may not know, grant us the dark that we may not hide, grant us—”

More thunks from under the vase, some hollow, some ringing, some fleshy, followed by a boom that makes Oliver’s ears ring. Between this and the chisel and seeing them carry the vase in earlier, the Gerard Keay Watchers across the street were having a field day, no doubt.

Gerry keeps up his chanting until well after the vase stops disgorging its contents, just in case, but it seems like they’ve well and truly...uh, contained it? Killed it?

When Gerry finally stops, they share a look in the waiting silence. Oliver is the first to break it with a, “...Now what?”

“Now...I guess we see if we did it.”

They turn the vase over together, Gerry doing his best to keep the paper covering its mouth. As soon as it’s off the floor, however, a tide of stuff bursts through the paper and comes pouring out. And just keeps going. It becomes impossible to set it back down again except on its side because there’s just no room, and more still emerges. “Just...don’t look too closely,” Gerry says.

“Wasn’t intending to,” Oliver lies—holy fuck, is that a femur? What even are those rocks?

They wade their way out of the mess and barely manage to close the door against it.

“Given how much that vase has probably eaten up, I don’t think it’s going to stop for a while. Might as well get some food ourselves.”

Connecting food with the things and people that vase might have disappeared makes Oliver a little light-headed, but he nods anyway. It’s been a long day and those M&S sandwiches only hold up so far.

Of course, this being Gerry, there isn’t a lick of fresh food in the place, but cup noodles is somehow precisely the right amount of comforting right now. Just sat on a sofa, legs tucked underneath him, asking Gerry questions between slurps of noodles and trying very hard to focus on the actual answers instead of how animated Gerry gets, drawing symbols in the air with his fork as he explains what he’d done in there.

Or. Well. They. What they’d done.

“I am not over-reliant on the Eye, how dare you,” Gerry protests, but there’s laughter in his voice. “It’s just the natural nemesis of the Spiral, come on.”

“I thought that was the Stranger,” Oliver says.

He tries not to preen too obviously at Gerry’s, “Heyyy, you remember your Smirke’s theories of balance. Well, yeah, okay, but Stranger and Spiral aren’t too far apart anyway. All about messing with your perception, right? And the Eye’s good to push against that. See through the bullshit, as it were.”

“Can’t see very well with the Dark, though, surely?”

“Ah, yeah, see what the Dark does is—so like, Spiral works best when you think you have an objective reality and it’s making you doubt it. If you already think of reality as malleable bullshit, not much it can do, y’know? And what does the Eye operate on? Horrible truths. Truths, see. So there needs to be something that balances that out.”

“Guess not much horrible truth if you can’t...see it?” Doesn’t make much sense to Oliver, but he wasn’t the person raised with this sort of thing, and anyway Gerry is nodding so he must not be too off-base. “Why not just use the Dark, though?”

“Cause the Spiral can take advantage of the Dark too. This way they can sort of tag-team it, make up for each other’s bullshit. Not to mention the fact the Eye and the Dark usually, like...” He bumps his fists together. “Smack up against each other, y’know? Tension’s good, keeps the Spiral suppressed. And then just a touch of blood to bring the more grounded Fears into the mix too.”

“...Grounded Fears?”

“That’s how I think of them. Spiral, Stranger, Eye, Dark too, they’re pretty cerebral. It’s about your perception, right? Flesh, though, Hunt, Slaughter...not so much. I wasn’t calling one of them in particular in this case, just sort of...laying out the groundwork if one wants to come sniffing. Probably Slaughter will fill that gap, though, which is good. Adds an element of chaos to the rest.”

“You...make them sound alive. The symbols and stuff. Like they’re...still active?”

“Oh yeah, that vase is dangerous as fuck, don’t touch it again. Dunno if I’d go as far as call it, or them, alive, but basically right now it’s going to be too busy fighting itself to be an active danger to someone else.” He takes a forkful of noodles, considers them a moment, and then says, “Probably.”

“Sounds like you maybe don’t want to be staying here tonight? Could crash at mine again.”

“Nah, I should...keep watch. I think we killed it, but if it starts back up again or the Entities I invited in actually get along and make something worse...Don’t wanna give your cafe friends an actual show.”

Oliver’s so mortified Gerry knows about the Watchers that he doesn’t even argue, just promises to be back tomorrow to see how things go.

For once, Oliver dreams a second night in a row.

It’s less of a fight to find the Ramao’s flat. Like he can feel the rhythm of the dreamscape and pick at it, tread over just the right notes, until he gets where he wants. Walks to that building, glides up those stairs, and when the beat doesn’t follow, he sinks into their flat by himself, despite the dreamscape.

He sees neither David nor André, vase or otherwise.

He runs to Pinhole Books first thing.

And Gerry, bless him, who knows that time he finally managed to sleep, and anyway it’s absurdly early in the morning, and yet he still comes clattering to the door, feet smashed into a pair of trainers and a t-shirt only half on. It takes a moment for Oliver to reassure him nothing is wrong—well, first he has to stop laughing, because that’s adorable, and then reassure that there is nothing to panic about, nothing is after him.

“Just, I dreamt again. I saw the tendrils, I followed them. And. We saved David. We saved David!” And he can’t help laughing again, the sheer relief of it now that he’s actually saying it out loud. “I think maybe the person with the Leitner too? I didn’t want to say. I’ve never—I’ve always tried to warn them, but it was never enough, and—”

And the way Gerry’s face brightens up and then softens just makes his chest clench and—

“Can I kiss you?”

Gerry blinks. Smile still there, but eyebrows up and bemused in a way that brings Oliver crashing down into himself. “What?”

“Can I—I mean obviously it’s fine if you don’t want to, wow I read this entirely wrong, you know what, never mind, I—”

And instead, Gerry kisses him. Just pulls him in by his lapels, in through the door, then up against said door when he kicks it shut behind them.

Oliver finds he doesn’t care about the stale cigarette taste or the smell of blood or the ghost.

His mind is, for once, quiet.

*

Trying to date someone who has a ghost wrapped around his shoulders the entire time is tricky but, somehow, not the weirdest relationship Oliver has ever had. Whether that says more about Oliver’s taste in boyfriends or his weirdness threshold now, he isn’t sure. Either way, tentatively, they figure their way around it and into the beginnings of...something.

He’s surprisingly sweet, Gerry. It’s couched in sarcasm and newly-discovered pop culture references, but Oliver sees it. He sees it in Gerry swinging by the shop to take the piss out of the books on sale after Oliver mentions how bored he gets, in gruff, “Come on, I’m taking you somewhere,” out of the blue and then, when Oliver expresses how surprise fancy restaurants are very much not good for his anxiety, he sees it in Gerry sending him listings and reviews for places and just letting Oliver decide instead.

“We don’t...have to go anywhere, you know,” Oliver says, faced with fifteen different listings to scroll through and a Gerry nervously shifting from foot to foot.

It turns out that, actually, Gerry much prefers date nights at home. When he doesn’t have to be keeping an eye out for something spooky and doesn’t have to know what eldritch evil has got its hooks in a random person two tables over, he can finally relax a bit. He seems to prefer Oliver’s cooking too. So why keep offering up fancy date places?

When Oliver asks, Gerry mumbles something about figuring Oliver might like them. He gets the sense, though, that Gerry was just going off a general idea of What Dates Are Supposed To Be. Given Mary and the evil books and everything, he doubts Gerry did much conventional dating.

Oliver smiles and keeps that to himself, though. Why tease Gerry when he can use him as a pillow instead? With Gerry sat against the armrest, legs sprawled over the sofa, Oliver just leans back against his chest and fits snugly under his arm, trying and failing to pay attention to their latest shitty fantasy movie.

Needless to say, given the ghost and all, Gerry is almost always big spoon. That almost only happens in that brief glorious gap of time between when the ghost has disappeared but Gerry still isn’t anxious enough to disappear home as well.

They don’t talk about when Mary Keay has manifested. Oliver asks, when his worry over the way Gerry looks on his doorstep makes him very brave. Gerry is very forthright about what a living fucking hell she is and no he is not okay so can they talk about literally anything else, please.

So Oliver talks about literally anything else, and Gerry leaves for a week or two at a time, nothing but stolen phone calls to bridge the gap.

“Why don’t you stay, though?” Oliver says, once, when Gerry is lacing his boots up to head home to Mary. “She doesn’t know where I live.”

“She’s tracked me all the way to Genoa before.”

“Oh...Um. Well. Maybe she won’t want to come near me? Being End-touched and all.”

Gerry glances up, lips quirked in a grin that says that’s cute, and Oliver huffs and says, “Never mind. It was just a thought.”

“I appreciate it,” Gerry says, straightening up. He leans in for a quick kiss that Oliver turns into a not-quick kiss in a last-ditch effort to keep him there, but he still pulls away with a, “Call you later,” and is gone.

And because he doesn’t want to push it, or make Gerry feel pressured, Oliver doesn’t bring it up again. Not until the next cycle comes round—the ghost going from translucent wisps to opaque and swollen as a tick about to burst and then gone entirely—when Gerry cuts through the rising dread of what they know is coming with, “...Maybe we could try.”

Oliver turns from the screen he hadn’t actually been watching to look at Gerry. “What?”

“The...me staying, I mean.”

“You sure?” Oliver tries, and fails, to keep how pleased he is out of his voice, and Gerry huffs a laugh.

“Yeah, um...Maybe just for the night. Bit of extra time.”

“Bit of extra time can’t hurt.”

*

Knowing that she had found Gerry all the way in Genoa, Oliver shouldn’t be as surprised as he is to find Mary Keay standing in front of his bookcase first thing in the morning. He’d hoped that maybe…

But, well. Doesn’t matter.

He pulls the bedroom door closed behind him. It isn’t silent, but she doesn’t look up or acknowledge his presence. Instead, she picks out a book, snorts at it, and sets it aside, occasionally dragging her finger through a spot of dust, and all-around exudes disdain for his entire living situation.

Considering he’s living by himself in sodding London, he thinks he’s doing pretty well, but some people just go around looking for things to be snots about.

“I don’t, ah.” Oliver’s voice breaks, and he takes a moment to clear the sleep out of his throat. Not the most assertive of openings, as her bored glance over to him communicates clearly. “I don’t recall inviting you here.”

“You didn’t. Dear, dear, has Gerard not explained these things to you? That’s vampires. Fictional ones at that, although I understand the confusion. You do seem fond of—”

“I meant you shouldn’t be here.”

When Mary Keay smiles, thin lips stretching over her teeth, there is that thick blood smell, copper on his tongue.

“No,” she says. “I shouldn’t.”

And yet here she is, and there’s nothing Oliver can do about it.

Well.

Yes there is, actually. The rules of politeness and hospitality don’t apply to abusive undead mothers, and she seems solid enough that he could throw her out.

She doesn’t move as he crosses the room in a few quick strides, but when he tries to grab hold of her, his hand sinks through her flesh with the most bone-sickening soul-wrong feeling—and her other hand clamps over his arm, sharp.

“Gerard!” she calls out. He pulls and pulls and can’t get out of her grasp, and all she does is calmly say, “I should thank you for hosting my son. We’ll be going now. Gerard!

“Stop screeching already!” Gerry yells from inside. He appears moments later, pulling his shirt on. When he pulls it down from his head, he glowers at her. “And let go of him.”

Mary Keay keeps hold of him just a moment longer, meeting Gerry’s eyes. And then opens her hand and lets Oliver’s arm drop. He can tell without pulling his sleeve up that she left marks; his arm sings with them.

“I really think you should leave,” Oliver says.

“We are, I’m sorry—”

“N—Gerry, I didn’t mean you.”

“I think you’ll find that you did,” Mary says, and pats Oliver’s arm right over where it stings. Just to be a proper cliche villain.

With a last condescending smile, she sweeps away from him, heading to the door. Gerry doesn’t look at him as he follows. He grabs his boots from beside the door and doesn’t even stop to pull them on, just walks out.

And then it’s radio-silence for over four weeks. Oliver calls, but they go unanswered, and eventually he just lets it be.

*

Oliver keeps busy by combing through charity shops and online listings, looking for Leitners. At first, he thinks he’s just gathering information for when Gerry’s back, he won’t do anything by himself, but as the silence stretches he thinks maybe he will.

It isn’t the most fruitful search. Aside from some old leaked statements from the Magnus Institute, there is nothing out there to tell him what titles to look for, no real comprehensive list, and he has neither Gerry’s experience nor his Sight to help. Still, the way Gerry tells it, plenty of people find the damn things on accident in random bookstores, and if Oliver has trust in anything it’s his own shit luck.

He doesn’t dream. He would have found that a relief if it didn’t feel a bit like punishment, but if the End wanted to punish him for the vase, why show him it worked? Maybe it’s just that two supernatural dreams in a row filled up his spooky dream prophecy quota. He still sees the tendrils in the waking world, after all, so the End can’t have given up on him yet.

The tendrils are different when he’s awake. They look the same, pulsing veins weaving through reality—not always around their victims, though. Sometimes they’re where the victim will be, instead. Just waiting. They feel, sound different as well. Or...rather, Oliver isn’t somewhere he can hear them. It’s like being underwater and having the awareness of music, a beat, but unable to catch the entirety of it.

Unlike in his dreams, he doesn’t know at a glance what the tendrils are predicting. He needs to touch them. He hates touching them. The corpse-cold of the veins sinks into his bones and settles like a comfortable jacket, and he hates it.

But he does it, again and again. He warns those he can, but a warning can’t do much against a car crash, an aneurysm, a fall down the stairs. He’s looking for the discordant ones, supernaturally caused.

He finds one. An Asian person curled in on themself against the cold. They wander up and down the street, neck craned to look at signs. Searching, it seems. On their third pass in front of the shop, Oliver catches sight of that ripple of colour in the lamplight and pauses from fussing with the crystals on display to just watch them.

Their hair is swept up, a short spiky ponytail with bits escaping their hair tie, and their ears…

This isn’t the first time he has seen tendrils in someone’s ear. But these. They look like earbuds. The curve, the way they grow thinner and come together as they trail down. Method of death, or mocking him? Has he dreamt this person before?

And then their eyes meet his, and he knows he has to say something before they leave and probably avoids this stretch of street and he loses his chance completely.

Oliver tries to make himself look as non-threatening as possible as he approaches; slow stride, shoulders rounded, hands visible. They still take a few steps back when he gets close.

“Can I help you?” they say.

How does he do this? Ask what they’re looking for? Warn them to protect their ears? Be careful what they listen to? The girl with the Leitner had already known it was unnatural, and André Ramao had clearly had some inkling as well, and both only responded when the supernatural issues were mentioned head-on.

Oliver doesn’t know what this person is searching for or if they know already, but that seems his best bet.

“You’re going to hear a sound—music, I think. It’ll be bad.” He grimaces immediately after. Smooth. Yeah, that makes perfect sense, Banks, good job. “Not the quality, I mean, the—”

“Are you with Grifter’s Bone?”

“Who?”

“How do you know about the music?” They back away, voice rising a little in panic, “Did you read my article, is this some kind of joke?”

Oliver starts trying to calm them down, but about two words in they aren’t paying attention to him anymore. Their gaze is, instead, fixed on something to the left, and he swivels to follow their line of sight.

A small group of people are coming down the street. Stick-thin and carrying instruments, except for the one in the front in an oversized brown suit, who pulled their case behind them with a steady grating sound of wheels on pavement.

They are, all of them, covered in a mass of thick, writhing veins. Wrapped around them, entering their bodies from wounds unseen or not-yet-made, rippling down their limbs to their instrument cases and then back again. Oliver has never seen the tendrils so active.

Then again, he doesn’t think he’s ever seen an avatar either.

Between the tendrils and their jerking gait, Oliver gets the sense they aren’t alive. Maybe Death isn’t happy about that, and the tendrils are working furiously to try and fix it. Or maybe Death is fine to let them be so long as they usher more victims through. Doesn’t really matter, does it? What does matter is that it seems like nobody else on the street can see them, which means this is the only person Oliver needs to save.

He grabs the victim’s shoulder, tightens his grip against their flailing, and leans down so they’re eye to eye.

“I don’t know what you’re hoping to find, but that music will kill you.”

“What? Who are you?”

“Does it matter? Listen. You know there’s something with the music or the band or—something wrong, or you wouldn’t be here. I’m telling you that something is going to kill you if you don’t get out of here.

Oliver is aware, then, of silence.

The street is quiet. No footsteps or chatter or the background ambiance of the city. More importantly, no sound of wheels on pavement. The band has stopped moving. He is suddenly certain they are waiting for him.

“Run,” he says, one last time, and lets the victim go.

The tendrils are still in their ears, but they do run. Their heels are the only sound in the world right now, and as soon as they turn a corner, that’s gone too.

Only then does Oliver turn to face the avatars. They seem...weirdly confused. The one in the front, with the brown suit, says, “You would have had your due.”

“Don’t want it,” Oliver bites out, but even his own voice in his head sounds muted. “Now if you could turn everything back to normal, that would be much appreciated.”

“Oh.” They look up to their, presumably, bandmates and share a smile. “You’re new, aren’t you.”

There is a shift in how they look at him. An acknowledgment of prey. They fan out slowly, moving to form a loose half-circle, and Oliver draws himself straighter, unwilling to back away. It only occurs to him that this might have been a bad idea when one of them starts opening their instrument case.

Oliver doesn’t know if weird evil murder music beats out death, but he’s awash with a cold certainty that he won’t like it either way.

He rushes the one nearest to him. He’s taller, has longer reach, can maybe grab their instrument, and if that’s where the evil magic is, then—

But there isn’t much thought to it, just the thrumming certainty he needs to fight, and if he doesn’t fight they will hurt him, they will—

Even though none of them move to stop him or help their friend. It’s only a matter of time, and when they do—

Hands clap over his ears and Oliver whirls around with a punch that whistles over...Gerry? And through the ghost, and the icy shock of it is the only thing that keeps him from trying to punch him again, because where the fuck has he been.

“Put these in,” Gerry says, pushing something into his hands. Earplugs. “Now.”

Scowling, Oliver does.

He is aware, then, of the whistling. He’d been so fixated on the person nearest to him and the one who had spoken that he hadn’t noticed one of the others whistling a jaunty tune. It’s muffled now, with the earplugs, and then goes altogether when Gerry puts headphones on him as well. The wire dangles, connected to nothing, and the urgent need to fight back ebbs from his limbs.

The person who had been whistling stops and shrugs, wearing a smile that says worth a shot.

Gerry yanks him away, an arm around his shoulders to march him down the street. Oliver can’t help glancing back, though, to where the band members are placidly shouldering their instruments as they drift together again, headed to wherever they were going before Oliver interrupted like nothing happened.

Despite not being able to hear a thing, he feels certain that the sounds of the world will have flooded back in, the pervading menace of that band eased down to a low background hum. He can think again. Notice things.

Like how Mary Keay’s ghost is nearly opaque again. Like the lights in the window of his shop, still on, still open.

“I still need to lock up,” Oliver says, and sharply turns out of Gerry’s grasp to head there.

Once inside, he pulls off the headphones and takes out the earbuds. He hears Gerry’s heavy footfalls behind him, the wind chimes at the door as Gerry closes it, and what sounds like the OPEN sign being flipped over. He doesn’t turn around. Instead, he strides on through to the backroom so he can grab his bag and coat and keys and not think about why Gerry reappeared with the ghost looking that solid already.

Gerry starts it first, though, when his opening salvo is, “You were really trying to throw hands with the Slaughter? Really?

Slaughter. That both explains a lot and is absolutely baffling at the same time, mostly just the idea of senseless violence manifesting as music. But maybe he’s too used to the rhythm of his dreams, steady and solid. Maybe he listens to the wrong music.

He thinks this and breathes, because his first urge when Gerry talked was to swing at him, and that’s probably leftover Slaughter too.

Probably.

“And not even earplugs or anything, Jesus, fuck, are you kidding me? If I hadn’t stepped in then, who knows what—”

“Yeah, hey, about that: how long have you been watching me?”

Gerry gets that mulish, closed-off expression that says he doesn’t want to answer, which is plenty answer in itself. Oliver nods.

“Thought as much,” he says, and shoves an arm into his coat with maybe more force than was actually warranted.

“Well, it’s a good thing I was, wasn’t it? What were you thinking, Oliver? You don’t mess with avatars!”

I’m an avatar, aren’t I? And you’re messing with me.”

“That’s—no, look, that’s different. You’re not a fully-realised one and even if you were, you’re not—d’you think avatars don’t go after each other?”

Oliver shrugs his coat on, smile wry as he pulls his locs out of the collar. “I feel like if they kill me, that just plays into my eldritch fear thing, doesn’t it?”

He says it with a confidence he doesn’t feel and that plainly doesn’t impress Gerry, who gets very close and shoots back with, “You think death’s the worst they can do?”

From this angle, Oliver can see the beginning of burn scars at the collar of Gerry’s t-shirt. What’s he supposed to say to that? So he says nothing, just pulls his bag over his shoulder and heads out.

For once, Oliver doesn’t slow down to match Gerry’s shorter stride. Gerry still keeps up just fine, the wanker.

It’s only with the tube station and its crush of people ahead that Oliver finally stops and whirls on him. Something about the prospect of close quarters with Gerry and his sodding mother, the certainty Gerry will get off at his stop and keep acting like nothing’s wrong, the audacity, grates and he…

Inhale. Exhale.

Oliver closes his eyes to focus on his breathing, the beat of his heart. When he opens them, he says, “Does this Slaughter stuff wear off or is there a...can you do something?”

“Maybe.”

“Gerry, I am staring your mother’s ghost right in the face and I can see it’s opaque enough to be almost two weeks old, by my charts. Like, if you couldn’t while she was there, sure, but two weeks and not a word—like, I get that you’re not used to needing to answer to anyone, or maybe you don’t want to, or—but that’s not how you have a relationship, and I already have plenty reason to be mad even without the evil band thing. Don’t give me more. Can. You do. Something.”

“I’ll try, alright?” Gerry says. “I’ll do my best but there’s no guarantee it will work, and that’s why the maybe. Okay?”

He’s scowling off to the side, not meeting Oliver’s gaze. The belligerent teenager look really shouldn’t be as endearing as it is—a brief spike of annoyance agrees with him there—but it tells Oliver that he’s worried, properly worried, and that’s difficult to be angry at.

They make it to Pinhole Books in silence.

*

The shop has been cleaned up.

No great transformation, mind you, and it still smells intensely of old books and dust and smoke, but the bookstore area is less of a maze and Oliver doesn’t have to worry about knocking anything over this time. Gerry has even managed to unearth some chairs, one of which he gestures Oliver into.

When Gerry excuses himself to head into the office, though, Oliver can see scorch marks licking the bottom of the door.

And why is Gerry leaving him here? Not inviting him through?

The polite thing would be to wait. But if anyone understands not doing the polite thing, it’s Gerry, and today’s already been a weird day, so why not? Oliver heads in, rushing the door before Gerry can hear him coming and stop him.

Gerry pauses with an arm outreached, probably about to do just that. His face is screwed up in what looks like it will be a get the fuck out of here but resolves into a sigh instead, resigned.

“Look, just. Don’t touch anything,” he says. “And try not to step in the blood. Last thing you need is to track it everywhere.”

Oliver does his best, using the books Gerry has laid down as stepping stones to avoid the many, many streams of trickling blood. Where they’re coming from and where they’re running to is unclear, since no blood is seeping out of the room and there are no freshly-stabbed anythings around to produce it, but that’s weird occult magic stuff for you.

Gerry sits down at his desk, paper and brushes and ink in front of him, along with a few other items he keeps pulling from the drawers. He’s hunched over, so Oliver can’t see what he’s actually doing. Presumably also weird occult magic stuff, although hopefully not the kind that produces more of this.

What he can see, what his eyes snag on as he scans the mess of blood and books and scorch marks to try and piece things together, is a tendril. It’s small, the width of maybe a plastic straw and only half as long, and it is reaching out from between the pages of a book.

“Uh, hey, Gerry? I know you said not to touch anything but—”

“Nope, no buts. No touching.”

Oliver huffs. “So you don’t want to know about the death tendril vein thing sticking out of one of them?”

Gerry grows still. He doesn’t look back, but eventually tilts his head a little in Oliver’s direction. “Is it the big brown one? Leather-bound, soft and floppy-looking?”

“Yeah…?”

“Huh.”

“...What does huh mean?”

“It means I’m not sure what that means and I need to focus on this thing but thank you for telling me? Also please don’t touch it.”

The please and thank you are the only things that keep Oliver from protesting. He keeps his hands in his pockets and watches the book instead. It’s atop a knee-high pile of other books, which means he has to carefully crouch down to take a closer look. No title anywhere he can see. Maybe it’s on the side that’s facing down, or maybe it just got worn off. It certainly looks old enough, and there’s nothing on the spine except stitching. The edges are uneven, each page cut a slightly different size. Some of the pages also seem to be a different colour? Could be staining or from age or something, but…

Now that he’s looking, Oliver gets the sinking sense those pages aren’t made of paper.

And the tendril reaches out from between them, almost tentative.

“Right.” Gerry’s chair scrapes across the floor as he stands up. “All do—for fuck’s sake, Oliver, don’t shove your face in it.”

Oliver gives him a baleful sidelong long, pushing on his knees to straighten up again. “You said not to touch. Didn’t say anything about looking.”

“Wow...Very Beholding of you. It’s working already.”

“What is?”

And Gerry presents him with a large glass eye pendant, ink or...something like ink still glistening on its back. They need to leave the room first, what with the weird blood on the floor and the need to basically play hopscotch over books just to cross it, but once they’re outside Gerry ties the pendant around his neck.

It’s that colour between blue and purple, trying to be round and mostly succeeding, and it is looking up at Oliver. The weight of that gaze is weirdly familiar.

“Isn’t this cultural appropriation?” Oliver says, resisting the urge to turn it over. Then the Eye would be against his chest and he’s not sure he likes that any better.

“No, you’re thinking of a Nazar,” Gerry says. “Wrong colour, different design and, besides, that wards against the Evil Eye.”

“Right. And this invites it in for a cup of tea, is what you’re saying.”

“Pretty much.” Gerry fusses with it a bit more, tugging it to make sure it’s sturdy. “It won’t do a ton. The Eye isn’t the most active of entities and isn’t a natural enemy of the Slaughter but…”

“Seemed to work just fine against the Desolation, for you.”

“Yeah, and I figure at the very least, it can maybe give some clarity and let you know when you’re under some horrible influence. Pretty sure that counts under awful truths.”

Oliver considers it a moment longer. That weight. His own feelings right now. The annoyance is gentler but still very much there, and he decides it’s perfectly within its rights to be.

He meets Gerry’s eyes and says, “Will it help you watch me?”

“Oliver…”

“Yes or no.”

“...Possibly. I can’t see through it or anything but it ties you to the Eye and I’m tied to the Eye, so it definitely can’t hurt.” Gerry grimaces. “Look, I know it was shit of me to disappear like that, and I should’ve checked in with you after she disappeared—”

“Or done literally anything other than just silently stalk me.”

“Stones and glass-houses, Antonio.”

“That - that was different. For all I knew, you were a murderer.”

“Uh-huh. And for all I knew, you were putting yourself in danger. Which you were. You’re welcome for saving you, by the way.”

“Well—” The frustrating thing is Gerry’s right and he probably did save Oliver. “Well, you didn’t need to stalk me to do it. She’s been gone for, what? Two weeks? More? You could’ve just come back, Gerry.”

That...ends up sounding rather more pathetic than Oliver was hoping for, but it’s already out there, so now all he can do is stare Gerry down with his best disappointed look and hope that balances it out.

It works enough that Gerry’s the one who looks away first. He mumbles, “Five days.”

“What?”

“She’s been gone five days. She held on longer than usual, probably to spite me, but I pissed her off enough that she went on a rampage and popped. It wasn’t fun, but—”

“But she’s—Gerry, the ghost’s...way too solid to just be five days old.”

Gerry throws his hands up. “I dunno. Maybe that’s what happens when she doesn’t wear herself out entirely. Or maybe she’s still so pissed off that she’s trying to manifest through sheer force of will. Point is...I was planning to. I just—I needed to take care of this first, but I wanted to check in on you, so I’ve sort of...I mean, I wouldn’t say stalking, just...you know, I’d pass by. See you’re alright.”

“Could’ve called.”

“Yeah. And I’d have said I needed to stay away to take care of something and you’d have told me off and come over anyway.”

“Yeah, well. Maybe then you wouldn’t have had a bleeding floor or whatever’s going on in there.”

Both statements are pointed, true, and just a little petulant. After a beat, both of them realise it; Oliver sighs, feeling foolish, and Gerry slowly unfurls his folded arms.

“Well...you’re here now anyway, I guess,” Gerry says.

“Precisely. So you might as well let me help.”

“I’ll, um...I’ll put on the kettle.”

With a bit more time to settle down, tea in hand, and an Eye pendant possibly easing whatever Slaughter feelings were leftover, their second round of the conversation goes better. Gerry’s still talking utter nonsense, going on about it being better, safer, to stay away, but him being honest about why means that Oliver can dispute it more easily. Part of being in a relationship, even new and tentative as they are, is handling stuff together, after all.

“It just so happens that in our case, the stuff we handle is death dreams and the ghosts of abusive mothers.” When Gerry doesn’t look convinced, Oliver sighs and adds, “Look. I know you don’t want to subject me to her, or let her into our—”

“Oliver, you don’t…” Gerry lets out an incredulous laugh, his head hanging back. “You’re really sweet, love, but you’re not listening to me.

“Tell me what I’m not getting, then. I know she’s awful, but I’m not scared of her.”

“Yes, but she’s scared of you,” Gerry says. “That’s what you hoped, right? The whole End-touched thing.”

“Gerry...You know I was kidding,” Oliver says, because he hates the quiet thought that this might have been his fault, willing it into reality. “What is there for her to be scared of, anyway? All I do is dream about spooky stuff.”

And Gerry ticks them off of his fingers. One, being End-touched when she’s trying to, y’know, escape death can be a bit threatening. Two, he stood up to her about Gerry. Three, the very fact he wasn’t scared of her and was part of Gerry’s life meant he was a threat.

“She was already dangerous before, but after her ritual failed, she’s become...erratic. I really don’t know what she’d be willing to do, but considering she killed my dad to practice her bookbinding and flayed herself to try and be immortal...It’s not good, and I don’t want to wait for it to happen.”

So maybe Oliver should be scared, is what he’s saying.

Oliver rubs his thumb over the smooth edges of his Eye pendant absently. “Your solution is just to stay away from now on, I take it?” Glancing up, he catches Gerry’s guilty look and quickly adds, “I’m not...well, okay, I guess I’m judging a little. I just—you’re so—you run into impossible things all the time, and you...defy eldritch gods by pitting them against each other, and you’re…”

He doesn’t want to say giving up. That’s unfair of him. He knows how Gerry grew up and how one’s own monsters can be the hardest to face down, and just because he’s frustrated doesn’t mean he should put the blame on Gerry.

“And I’m what, Oliver?” Gerry says, with the sort of quiet patience that said he heard what Oliver held back loud and clear.

“You’re not alone.” Oliver takes his hand, warm from being wrapped around his tea, and laces their fingers together. “You’ve already had to do so much by yourself, and I know you had no choice, but this time you’re not alone.”

“I wasn’t giving up.”

“I know you weren’t.”

“And I wasn’t planning on disappearing forever. I was trying to find her fucking book, and I did. Wasn’t easy to nab but I did that too, made her pop, and now I just gotta figure out how to destroy the damn thing before she comes back.”

“That’s the one I asked about?”

“Yeah. I’ve been throwing everything I can think of at it. Hence the, y’know.”

“Rivulets of blood? Interesting side-effect.”

“Well, it’s a book made of skin. Thought I’d turn the Flesh on it. So it decided to bleed. No, I don’t get it either.” Gerry withdraws his hand, sagging back against his chair. “Not much you can do about Death. Not that I know, anyway. Burning didn’t work, and it can’t be destroyed by any other mundane means. Tried calling the End on her at first—y’know, ratting her in? Didn’t do anything, unsurprisingly, so…Flesh was the best I could think of.”

“I’m guessing it’s not that simple but, chuck it in the Thames?”

“Tried that the last time I stole it, ages ago. Came right back. Nah, know what? The Fairchilds have their silly space flight thing going on. Maybe if I send her in one of those, she’ll finally be too far away.”

“Worth a shot.”

“...Oliver, I was joking. The Fairchilds would sooner throw me off a cliff than help—have already tried to, in fact. Twice.”

Right. Sailing right past that, because Oliver does not have the energy to be concerned about Vast avatars trying to throw his boyfriend off of a cliff too right now. One thing at a time.

“Then never mind the Fairchilds. We can invoke the Vast ourselves. Maybe, I dunno, make it hard for her to find you. Or...or the Spiral’s about perception, right? Maybe that can affect her when she’s incorporeal. The Buried?”

“Why the Buried?”

“No idea, I just thought of death and coffins and burials so...can’t hurt to try?”

He’s sure he sounds painfully foolish, especially considering it very much could hurt to try if they get this wrong or the magic interacts badly or something along those lines. But it gets Gerry to crack a smile, which is the important thing.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long.

The Vast symbols Gerry etches into the book sink into it, swallowed. Like with most Entities, there are many aspects to the Vast, so Gerry tries again, a different angle this time. Nothing.

The Buried makes it scream, the book shaking with the force of voices on voices on voices that only choke off when Gerry overlays those Vast symbols again, and both disappear.

When they test the Spiral it on the first page, the words—Sanskrit, according to Gerry—jumble, realign, whirl into patterns. And then, with a sound like an exhale, the page crumbles.

“Shit, fuck, fuck. Oliver. Oliver, this is it!” Gerry says.

He flips to the last page, hers, each page making a weighty plop as it lands on the one before it, and tries again.

And nothing.

It turns out individual pages can be damaged just fine. They can tear any of the others out of their binding, burn them, cut them to ribbons, don’t even need any fancy occult nonsense to do it.

Except for hers.

Gerry throws the fountain pen he’d been using at the wall and he sinks into his hands and then face down onto the desk, fingers tugging at his hair.

“Right. Of fucking course. She’d take her precautions. She even wrote her fucking death in Sanskrit so she couldn’t be summoned easily, why did I ever think…”

Any comforting words Oliver could have said feel hollow, so he keeps them to himself and, leaning over his chair, just rubs circles into Gerry’s back.

The tendril is still there, lying between the pages like a fat bookmark, but when Oliver gently tugs the book from Gerry’s grasp so he can get a feel for it he gets nothing beyond the usual jolt of cold. It’s a death omen in a death book, but is it Mary’s death? Is it the death of whoever comes next? Has it just always been there as part of its evil death book thing?

“You said, before…” Oliver tries, soft in case Gerry’s liable to startle. Gerry only hums acknowledgment. “One of the entities tends to have—like it can hurt the other entities, right?”

“All of them can fuck each other over one way or the other. The End is tricky because, well, it’s the End, but...In principle, yeah.”

“Yes, but I meant—God, why are there so many, I always end up forgetting one. Hang on.” Oliver counts them out under his breath, Smirke’s sodding fourteen, until he alights on, “Hunt! You never try to invoke that one, do you? I get why not the Web or the Desolation, and you’re worried about the Corruption in principle—”

“Its whole thing is to get under your skin with the idea that it’s maybe there and you maybe didn’t get all of it.”

“Right, makes sense. But why not Hunt, if it’s so effective?”

Gerry lifts his head, rubbing his hands down his face. “Some entities, you don’t want to fuck with. And some entities, you don’t want fucking with you.”

“Bad run-in?”

“Not quite. It’s…” He grimaces. “I’ve seen people slip into the Hunt. And it’s so easy, especially in our—well, my, I guess, field, this thing I do. The Entities, they don’t turn you into something you’re not, just...take what you are and crank it up to nine-thousand and then break off the dial.”

“But you’ve already got all of your…”

Oliver gestures to the eye tattoos.

“Mmno, the Entities aren’t big on helping. Least of all Beholding. If anything, it’s going to get itself some popcorn and sit back and watch the show.”

Considering the weird random knowledge Gerry sometimes gets and his Seeing things, Oliver isn’t sure that’s entirely accurate, but he isn’t about to argue. “Yeah, but you’ve sort of claimed it, right? Can you have more than one eldritch boss at the same time?”

“Not that I know of, but just because I tap into it sometimes doesn’t mean Beholding is my eldritch boss. And anyway, Hunt and Beholding are...kinda complementary. One slips into the other pretty easy.”

“Right…No Hunt then.”

“No Hunt.”

Gerry looks down at the book in Oliver’s hands. He rolls his shoulders back, taking a deep breath, visibly putting himself back together.

“Well. We’re not done yet, either way. Plenty other shit to try.”

*

None of it works. And after two more days of trying and failing, even Oliver’s finding it difficult to keep his frustration at bay, let alone reassure Gerry. Gerry has entirely shot past frustration and into the amusement of someone at the end of their rope, who’s trying very hard to find it funny so the fear doesn’t crush him. Every failed attempt just gets a wry smile and a, “And that’s another point for Mumsy, and a big fat zero for me.”

By the end, Gerry starts to joke about finding one of the Lightless Flame cultists to chuck the book at.

“After I fucked up their little cult meeting a few years ago, bet they’d love to get their hands on me,” he says, picking at his food. “I’d just need to take down my Desolation wards, maybe make them think the book’s important to me…?”

Except the more he thinks through it out loud, the less it sounds like a joke.

Meanwhile, the ghost has been solidifying. That familiar ugly grin, edged red, follows Oliver as he picks his way through the office, as he brings Gerry coffee, as he offers suggestion after useless suggestion.

If Gerry knows Hunters, why not give them the Skin Book and let them deal? Because apparently owing a Hunter a favour is worse than having his mum around, and that’s assuming they don’t decide he’s a monster and go after him too.

And what about other Entity-adjacent people? Not the Lightless Flame or the Fairchilds, literally anyone else. Except Gerry’s been in the business a long time and, well, destroying artefacts belonging to one’s dread master isn’t a great way to make friends.

And what about if Oliver asks, then? But that gets shut down before it even starts, with the Slaughter encounter weighing heavily as proof he can’t do it.

The ghost’s grin mocks him throughout. Especially when he decides to try and cut off the tendril in the book and just goes straight through it instead, knife lodging in the desk. He would swear, then, that the mottling of colours across the ghost’s surface meant laughter.

“Oliver, just…” Sighing, Gerry gently takes the knife out of his hand and sets it aside. “I’ll work something out, but it’ll take time. Maybe, for now, it’s time to think about precautions. You said she’s been manifesting faster and if she’s back soon, I don’t want you—”

“I’m not letting her win, Gerry,” Oliver says. He keeps tight hold of Gerry’s hands. “We’ve—you don’t—”

“Oliver—”

“No, listen.”

And Gerry closes his mouth, an eyebrow raised. He nods as a sort of go ahead and Oliver takes a deep breath to actually put his thoughts in order this time.

“I’ve been seeing these dreams for...God, so long. And I haven’t been able to do a single thing about them. I try. I always try. But they either don’t believe me or it’s not something they can do anything about or...Maybe sometimes they do try, and it happens anyway. But this. Us. We’ve done something. We’ve saved people. You do it all the goddamn time. And it’s not fair, it’s not fucking fair if we can’t do the same for you. So...So I’m not letting her win, and I’m not giving up.”

Gaze soft, Gerry pulls out of Oliver’s grasp and cups his cheek.

“I’m not giving up either, but we have to accept that maybe this time isn’t it. Tomorrow we’ll figure out a hiding spot for that thing so she can’t access it, and then I’m coming with you to your flat and we can start trying out some warding. Alright?”

He strokes his thumb over the rise of Oliver’s cheekbone, pats him once, and then lets go.

For the rest of the night, all he talks about is what might be most effective, given Mary is both of the End and not. He doesn’t mention the fact he expects Oliver to stay put in his flat the whole time, no contact with Gerry at all. Doesn’t talk about the fact Gerry is going to have to deal with his self-professed erratic evil ghost mother on his own, now with added anger over having stolen her book.

And there’s nothing Oliver can do about it, because if he sticks around anyway that would just make it worse, wouldn’t it?

So all he can do is pull Gerry from his books and diagrams to eat something and then usher him off to sleep, promising to be right there.

All he can do is wait until he hears Gerry’s abominable snoring and, quiet as can be, grab the book and head home.

*

Here’s the thing:

Mary Keay bound herself to a book to escape death. That means she fears the End possibly more than anything else at this point. Meanwhile, Oliver is being courted or maybe slowly consumed by the End. Either way, the End has a vested interest in him.

And while Oliver knows the Fears aren’t about helping people…

Oliver opens the book in his lap and stares that tendril down.

“Alright. You might not be actively conscious, but you’re aware of me...I think. And presumably you’re aware of this book. Hell, maybe you are this book. So, it seems to me maybe you’d want this woman out of it. Sure, you want to trap people’s last moments and...I dunno, force them to live a horrible existence forever, but that’s not what Mary Keay’s done, is it? She gamed you. And if she’s getting used to it, getting stronger, soon she’ll be the master of this book.”

Unsurprisingly, there’s no response. The tendril moves a bit, but as far as Oliver can figure it’s just the same aimless reaching it’s been doing from the start.

At least Gerry isn’t here to see him talk to himself.

“Look, I’ll admit I want to get rid of her for personal reasons. But you’ve chosen me to see this. I don’t see these tendrils or veins or whatever all the time. So you want me to see it, you have a reason too...Maybe it’s to entice me not to fight back? Maybe to try and get me to do your dark bidding? Honestly, I’m not sure I care. Just...show me how to get rid of her, and I will. Then we’ll both be happy, yeah?”

This probably won’t do anything. Oliver will just sit here talking to the air all night, and then in the morning he’d head back to Pinhole Books and either have a lot of explaining to do or, with any luck, Gerry will still be asleep and he can just slip the book back.

But if it does work, if he can tap into the End somehow…

Oliver should probably be more afraid of what that would mean. He has anxiety about a thousand and one things, from his future at the magic shop to decisions he made fifteen years ago to talking on the phone to wearing mixed patterns to saying the wrong thing to the cashier at the supermarket. He has lived life with a low level of constant background fear since...well, since he can remember, really.

Maybe that’s what broke his fear gauge. If he’s always afraid, then why would soliciting the services of the literal Fear of Death register at all?

Whatever the case, he is remarkably calm as he presses his hand, flat, on Mary Keay’s page, his thumb fitting over the tendril as he does.

It’s bone-cold, as he knew it would be, and blank, as he hoped it wouldn’t.

Oliver keeps his hand there anyway, closing his eyes. He listens to his heart beat. He tries to listen for the beat underneath, tries to find the rhythm that tells him what he needs. Instead, the world is quiet and blank and the blankness hurts.

And then it isn’t.

*

When Oliver wakes up, he is aware of several things at once.

It’s morning, late enough that the watery sunlight is peeking around his curtains. His neck hurts, because he fell asleep sitting up on the sofa and his head lolled to the front. He’s cold, partially because of the aforementioned sleeping on the sofa, but also no doubt because he is wrapped in a tendril.

Tendril is perhaps not the word anymore.

The vein is as thick as his forearm, coiled on his chest like a content housecat. Its tip is curled around his throat, where it pulses gently just at the base. The book is still open in his lap. Oliver knows that snapping it shut will not sever the vein growing out of it, but he tries anyway. The skin pages are too soft to make a satisfying thud as they come together.

Funnily enough, he’d actually gotten a good night’s sleep.

“Well,” he says, and huffs a laugh. “I appreciate that much.”

From the kitchen, Mary Keay’s voice says, “Appreciate what, dearie?”

His stomach drops out.

Not her, not like this, not her, not her.

The kitchen door is the first thing to the right when you enter the flat. If he bolts, there’s a very good chance she’d just step out and get him anyway. Can’t do the windows. He’s too far up. What about—

Some distant part of him, backlit with orange and quiet calm, acknowledges this is just human instinct kicking in. The base need not to die. He knows better than that, doesn’t he? The vein is still wrapped snugly around his throat, none of his thoughts or half-baked plans moved it at all.

It’s the End. One way or another, the End has him.

Is this payback? For the people he and Gerry saved? For his hubris in thinking he could call on it? Is it the condition to stop Mary?

Mary Keay steps into the living room brandishing a kitchen knife. One of Graham’s fancy ones that Oliver took when they broke up, since Graham was never much for cooking anyway and God, why is this what he’s thinking about right now? He should be getting up. Running. She’s a small woman, maybe he can rush her, he has to at least try

It’s just such a comically cliche image. Woman with all those occult markings menacingly brandishing a big knife. He’d have laughed if he had any breath left in him.

“It’s polite to respond when someone asks you a question,” she says.

She starts towards him and now, now Oliver’s limbs remember how to move. He scrambles up and behind the sofa, the book held in front of him like a shield. Part of him expects the veins to hold him back, anchor him down to his fate, but they’re so light he barely feels them. Just the pulse fluttering at his throat, out of sync with his own.

“It’s also polite not to barge into people’s houses and threaten them with their own knives, so, y’know. Call it even.”

The side of her mouth quirks up. And he hates, absolutely hates how he can see Gerry in that expression.

“Gerard made that for you, I take it?” she says, gesturing with the knife to his—oh. The pendant. He’d forgotten he was wearing it.

Oliver glances up from the pendant to find her starting to circle around the sofa, and he quickly scrambles to keep some distance between them.

“Of all the Entities he could have chosen and he goes with the Eye. Disappointing, really. That’s one family tradition I would rather he hadn’t followed, although I suppose I should be thankful he didn’t go and work for that Institute.”

“You know he did it to spite you, right?”

“Yes, I’m aware my son can be quite immature. But he’s young. He has time. You, however…”

Closer again, and Oliver shuffles the few steps necessary to keep the sofa between them. She’s very nearly out of the way from blocking his path to the door. Bolt? He’s probably going to bolt. Just as soon as she moves again.

“Oh come on, you can do a better threat than that,” Oliver says. He probably shouldn’t goad her, she’ll probably move on her own, but not fast enough. “Put some creativity in it. Personalise it a bit.”

“Mm, I see Gerard’s had quite the influence on you.”

“Could say that.”

“How’s this for personalisation, then: how did your little kerfuffle with the Spiral go? That terribly ugly vase. I didn’t see much of it, mind you. Gerard was very careful to keep me out of his room until he got rid of it. But I did see a man who was fairly desperate to get it back. Kept going on about his husband—Andrew, was it? Sounded like he was in very bad shape.”

André. His name is André.

“You expect me to believe that?” His voice isn’t as steady as he’d like, but he keeps going. “And anyway, how’s that a threat?”

“Well, you seem to believe you can outsmart an Entity just by being very, very earnest about it, so you do strike me as the gullible sort, yes. But I’m being entirely serious. Oh, you felt like a hero, didn’t you? With your little precognition, saving lives. So special you could outsmart the End.”

Mary smiles, trailing her free hand over the back of the sofa as she circles around it. Oliver circles the other way. The door is behind him. This is it. This is his opportunity. Fuck her and her words, and fuck the End too.

Oliver turns, jumps over the coffee table, a few strides and he’ll be at the door and he’ll swipe the keys from their bowl beside it and with any luck he can—

He is doused in cold thick wrong, blood-stench overwhelming him, as Mary Keay passes through his body and manifests herself at the other end in front of him. Before he can react, she stabs him clean through the throat.

“It takes work to do that, dear,” she says, and pats his cheek. “That was the threat. Now, if you don’t mind, I do believe you have something that belongs to me.”

Smiling sweetly, she pries the book from his hands and stabs him again, the chest this time.

As she eases him onto the floor, somehow all he can think of is: oh, he’s going to get blood in his carpet, so much for his deposit.

And: what the fuck, God no, those can’t be his last thoughts.

And: it hurts.

Veins plume out of his chest, his throat, twining around the one he already had. They start small and grow steadily fatter, feeding off of his fear, off of him, a vital, lively pulse that beats steadily on even as his own stutters and spurts and oh God he’s dying, he’s dying to Mary Keay’s voice and.

He was so close, he was so close, he could have made it and.

And the veins would still have been there. It would have been five minutes later or hours or tomorrow or another day, equally awful and inconvenient and inevitable and.

Mary Keay is talking about how she has none of the correct tools for this and she’s tempted to go home and get them, but then again there is a certain rush in using what she has to hand. Back to basics, as it were.

Oliver raises his hand to the blade in his chest and pulls it out to get this over with.

As he dies, the ice-cold terror settles into numbness. Her voice fades to a background susurrus, replaced instead by that thrumming of veins or maybe his heart or maybe the unnatural sun that beats orange down on a landscape he knows well.

*

Oliver sits up in a dreaming world and breathes in deeply, for what feels like the first time.

The veins are still wrapped around him, but he hasn’t joined the horde of overexposed photograph people outside, at least not yet. They have a weight to them now that they didn’t before, expectant, just on the edge of uncomfortable. But he knows he can’t shrug them off.

They are his fate. They are dappled with a thousand different iterations and possibilities, death coming to him at the edge of Mary’s knife, a Hunter’s bullet, a satellite crash, too many to see or count or understand, wrapped around him again and again.

The End is neither punishing him nor bartering with him. It neither cares about him nor was it ever listening.

It simply is.

And always has been.

And always will be.

Although he knows what he will find, Oliver drops from his window to the streets below and follows the routes and rhythms he had taken before. They lead not to places but to lives touched by the oily red of a supernatural end. And by him. His intervention.

He sees Samira Fikry and the tendrils that have covered her eyes, her face, stretching deep within her self until her self is no more. She lives, now, with the ridicule of a world that doesn't get what she went through, and the determination to prove the world wrong, and the surety the book will find her again. It won't. The book is burnt. But she will find the Stranger, and that will be that.

He sees her neighbour, the rude person upstairs. No longer covered with a mask of tendrils, Neil Thompson instead gets to live three more months, the death that burrowed into his bones given the time to blossom.

He sees André Ramao and the tendrils that branch over his skin, fracturing him into smaller and smaller pieces. He sees them spread to David Ramao, where they turn to gentle, consuming wisps. He sees a long, slow death in parts, and apart.

He sees Jennifer Ling, who he met outside of his shop, the tendrils that began in her ears having grown to run through the veins, branching blood and anger and burning curiosity to keep looking, to find the song. And she will, one day.

They all will, one day. Death is patient.

It doesn't matter that Oliver dies today and Mary Keay continues. There will be another Dreamer, there are already many Dreamers, just as there will be another one-day end for Mary Keay.

Oliver looks in these faces and nods like it is right and continues on.

He might have been content to do so forever, if not for the slow sharp pain that finds him even here.

Oh. Mary still has the book, doesn't she?

He returns to his corpse and finds Mary Keay has turned him over and is using a very small, very sharp knife to draw sigils in his back. The pendant lies to one side, discarded with his shirt. Its pupil is pointed to where Oliver is now, in this dream or afterlife or one and the same. It sees and does nothing.

She has arrayed thread and the book beside her, open, waiting for a new page. He feels this possibility quiver, a discordant note in the rhythm of the world. The book is a fated end like any fated end, but Oliver has already had his fated end. To take it from him is...hm.

No.

The veins wrapped around him rejoin themselves with the ones still in his corpse. The one in his body's throat pulses, and he feels a spasm as the one in his chest reaches under his ribcage, and pulls.

His entire self shudders into wakefulness, and he is staring up at Mary Keay’s disgruntled face.

“Should’ve known. Irritating you couldn’t have waited a little longer, though,” she says, and stabs him again.

“That hurts quite a lot, please stop, ” Oliver says, or tries to. The puncture in his throat turns that to more of a whistling gurgle, but that doesn't matter.

What matters is that when he tries to reach up, he can feel the knife he pulled out of his chest still between his fingers. It's slippery with his death but he manages to get a decent hold of it, and while Mary is distracted trying to kill him again, Oliver strikes out where he remembers the book being. The blade sinks through the back of her page.

She slashes at his hand, trying to make him stop, let go, and his hand bleeds, and the blood seeps into the cut in the page, feeding it. Warping words.

The vein around his throat branches off, and the branch wraps itself around and around and around Mary Keay, a thin spiderweb latticed over the bleeding words in her skin.

It's fairly anti-climactic, really.

Oliver doesn't do anything beyond keep his hand and the knife and his death lodged firmly in the book. She slashes and swears and tries to carve him faster and he lets her, because she's scared and he can't begrudge her that.

Until, finally, she fades away at the edges and in the next breath, she's gone.

Oliver takes a moment to breathe. His heart is beating again, too loud in his ears, but he is calm. He pats the veins around his throat and over his chest and gently sloughs them off. His death has come and gone. It needs to leave room for what comes next.

The skin of his hand and chest is smooth, despite her repeated slashes. His throat is not. A starburst of scar tissue at the base of his windpipe marks his fatal wound. The rest, he supposes, was just speeding up the inevitable.

Sat cross-legged on the floor, he pulls the book onto his lap again and begins to read.

The knife went through more pages than just Mary’s. With their pages torn, the people trapped within are sometimes confused, sometimes angry, sometimes the barest wisps. It feels wrong to release them without speaking to them, however. Some thank him before he burns their pages. They shouldn’t, but he doesn’t stop them.

Finally, all that is left is Mary’s page.

It has healed from the knife already, but his blood is still there, pushing his death into her until the written words are little more smudged squiggles. He cannot read her death and doesn’t want to, but when he tears her page up and eats the first piece, he can taste it. The bitter rage at her disappointing son and the world that did not grant her what she deserved. The pain, sharp at first and then growing dull as her body caught up with what she’d done to it. The satisfying lick of fear that maybe, just maybe this wasn’t going to work, she wasn’t going to be able to finish. Not an ounce of regret anywhere.

All of it tastes foul but, Oliver muses, he’s had worse meals.

And he needs to finish it. If he doesn’t, she might still come back, more rage than human but still her, and he can’t have that. So he eats, even as he can hear Gerry battering himself against the front door, even as the door bursts open, even as Gerry stands there, wide-eyed. Oliver lifts his head to meet Gerry’s gaze, folds up the last bit of her page, and eats.

There is no ghost around Gerry’s shoulders. The only blood-stench is his own, dried into the carpet around him.

Look at that. Victory.

Oliver holds up the book’s empty binding and says, “I took care of it. We can burn this now.”

Gerry stares at it. Then him. He is crying soundless tears as he staggers closer, murmuring apologies and he should have been faster and she locked him in but he tried, he tried—and when he crumples to the floor, Oliver wraps an arm around him and pulls him closer.

It’s nice to be able to tuck Gerry’s head under his chin without getting a faceful of ghost, for once.

It’s nice. Until he feels pinpricks of telltale cold.

Oliver cranes his neck back to look. Where Gerry’s green-blond roots are, should have been, is instead almost black. The thinnest strands of oilslick tendrils emerging from, diving into, his scalp.

The words are on his tongue before he registers it, rising from somewhere deep.

“You have a brain tumour,” Oliver says, and knows it to be true. “Inoperable. You will die in a year.”

“...What?”

“You will die in a year. I’m sorry.”

But that sounds hollow even to his ears, and when Gerry pulls away to look at him, it’s plain he sees it on Oliver’s face.

“What happened, Oliver? I know I was late, I know I should’ve—”

“No, I took the book. There’s nothing you could have done.”

“Right, okay...and then what?”

“I died,” Oliver says, and gestures to the scene around them. “I suppose it’s more accurate to say I was murdered, but if it hadn’t been Mary it would have been something else. She was the tool in my demise. Just as I was in hers. Just as we were in André and David’s—did you know about that?”

Gerry, who had been rubbing his eye with the palm of his hand, stops.

“Oh. You did.”

“I...suspected?”

Gerry sniffs, once, then he wipes his nose with the back of his hand, trying to look for all the world like the toughest of tough guys. A lifetime of needing to be strong is kicking in, and he’s already packing all of that emotional expression away.

Or maybe distance. Now that Oliver isn’t safe.

“I...thought we’d succeeded, back then,” Gerry says. “But then David came ‘round. Guess he remembered the name of the bookstore and found me. Apparently, after selling the vase, his husband just...every time something would go missing or wrong or...any of that, he’d suspect the vase was back and go looking for it. Eventually started on drawing the fractals to show David to prove it and...In my experience, once they’re at the stage where they’re recreating the Spiral, it’s got them.”

“But you didn’t tell me.”

“How could I? That one, that one especially...Your face was...You were so happy you’d done something. It gave you hope, Oliver. I couldn’t...ruin that.”

“Yes...I suppose it did. I liked hope.”

Futile as it was, in the end, hope had been nice. Warm. Oliver could understand wanting to maintain the illusion or, at least, couldn’t begrudge it.

He has none to offer in return, though, when Gerry says, “So...a year, huh?”

Or...perhaps...

Oliver considers him for a long moment. “If you sink into the Eye, it can give you more time. Nothing escapes death, but it is patient. It can wait.”

Gerry tries to smile. Doesn’t quite manage it.

“And are you telling me this because you’re giving me an option or...hope or whatever, or is it feeding your boss? I mean, I know my death’s coming now. And yeah, I sorta always knew it would, but there’s a difference between the nebulous knowledge of mortality and an actual avatar of the End telling you for sure, y’know?”

“Are you scared, Gerry?”

“Of course I’m fucking—” He rolls his lips back. Sighs. “Which was it, Oliver?”

And Oliver would very much like to pretend he knows the answer to that. Gerry watches him, and Oliver can see the slow, sinking disappointment even before he’s said a word.

“I don’t know,” is what he says eventually. “I think I would have liked to make you feel better. But none of this does. Does it?”

“No. Not really. I’ve seen enough of trying to escape death by supernatural means, I think, and...I dunno, not sure serving an Entity is quite my speed.” This time when he tries to smile, it’s slightly more convincing. “‘Preciate it, though.”

Oliver curls a finger under Gerry’s chin, draws him up for a kiss. Gerry’s mouth feels the same, the press of his lip ring, the scratch of stubble, the cigarette taste. Everything else feels different. Hollow. Cold.

When it wanes, Oliver looks down at him. He shifts his hand to cover Gerry’s cheek, thumb stroking gently just under his eye. Gerry meets his gaze, and Oliver can tell he knows too by that soft, saddened look he has. Oliver hums in acknowledgment and drops his hand, and Gerry looks away.

“You should get up,” Gerry says. “Get yourself cleaned of all this, uh...blood.”

“Yes, I suppose I should.”

Oliver showers and washes the blood out of his hair, dries it, gets dressed. Gerry having burst through his front door like that, Oliver can’t depend on hearing it close to know when he’s slipped away. He just tries to give Gerry the time to make his decision, do what he needs, and leave. No need to make it awkward.

When he emerges, Gerry has burned the book, cleared away the knives, and made an attempt to start cleaning the carpet. The note he has left on the coffee table promises he will pay for the door. It’s sweet.

Oliver props the door closed with a chair and, despite the fact he has a shift at the magic shop, decides to go to bed instead. It’s been a long day.

 

END