Elias sighs as he spins on one of the new stools he’s acquired, watching the overhead lights blur into dissonant circles. Gertrude’s still lingering in her lair, so he can’t go and nose around for any wildly over the top false statements to slide to Jon between the real ones he’s hoarded for his reference notes. Not that he’s sure he’d be able to discern which statements were false that didn’t involve an artefact, those were always harder to verify.
Sarah wasn’t in either, off on another trail with Harvey and so, hadn’t come to bother him about the statements from last time. Something about an up and coming magician who had a penchant for audience participation and illusions. Apparently grumpy audience members would be chosen to enter one of those disappearing boxes, only to come back with the broadest smiles and emptiest eyes. He hopes they burn the cursed box, if there was one thing the Archives were good for in their field research, it was that they almost never came back with items for Storage. Though they were far more likely to attempt to smuggle out a few items, Leitner’s and items from the ‘Yikes! Fire’ and ‘Sudden Homicidal Urges’ shelves. He wishes they would steal some teeth, they could substitute them for breadcrumbs or something in case they ever get hopelessly lost in the woods.
Speaking of the Archives and smuggling, “Shelley for the love of god please tell me that isn’t a cat.”
Michael Shelley freezes, blue eyes wide behind oversized coke bottle lenses, large spindly hand gently cradling a dark bundle of fluff to his chest, as his messy blond waves fail to act as a curtain. “Why would there be a cat in the Magnus Institute?” Shelley laughs, the pitch breathy and the pauses between drag in a cacophony of unnerving nervousness.
“You’re not hiding it here are you?” Elias asks, eyeing the very not cat-proofed room. If anything Artefact Storage was the least cat friendly department in the entire institute.
“Would you believe me if I said I got lost on my way to the Archives?” Shelley asks sheepishly.
“How do you still work with Gerty?” Elias asks, burying his face into his hands. “I think I’m embarrassed for you.”
“I can’t leave her all alone outside, it’s raining.” Shelley’s bottom lip quivers, and he raises the fluffball towards him. Oh, it’s a kitten. “It’s not like Artefact Storage is actually dangerous anyways, could you just watch her until the end of the day? I’ll owe you one.” Elias tries not to bristle at Shelley’s dismissiveness, how someone in the Archives could be that blind was beyond him.
But as he stares into the kitten's big green eyes it mews pitifully and he caves. “I’ll keep them in my office, but only until my shift ends, I have dinner plans.”
“You have a date?” Shelley asks, blue eyes falling on him with doubt clearly written across them. “Dressed like that?”
“Not a date.” Elias frowns, what’s wrong with how he’s dressed? He’s wearing a new shirt and everything, no mysterious stains or blood to be seen, just green floral print. His assistant had been very insistent that his usual shirt was unsalvageable, next week would make a full month for her. He hopes she sticks around. “It’s with my nephew, we play catch up every Friday.”
“You have a nephew?” Shelley asks, setting the kitten down on their Leitner handling table, and it immediately hops into his equipment basket. Elias can feel a headache beginning to tease at the edges of temples. Shelley looks like he wants to say more, but thinks better of it.
“Yes, his name’s Jon and he’s eight.” Elias says, walking over and picking the cat up, oh it’s light and so very soft and fluffy. “A bit of a terror with a hunger for good horror stories.”
“You’ve never mentioned your family before.” Shelley says, tugging at one of his shirt buttons.
“No one’s ever asked.” Elias says, words tart and clipped. No one asks him anything unless they need something, and Shelley was no exception. Shelley’s expression collapses, and he shoves away the pang of guilt. “Now get going before Gert-”
The door flies open.
“I needed you back five minutes ago Michael.” Gertrude says, walking in like she owns the place, pale grey flashing behind half-moon frames. “And here you are fraternizing with Bouchard, of all-” her lip curls at the sight of the kitten in his hands. “Do you have no sense of propriety?”
“It’s great to see you too Gerty.” Elias says with a lazy smile, hoisting the kitten closer to his chest as his posture loosens. “I don’t see why I should, what’ll Wright do, fire me?” they both know that the department is close enough to collapse as it is, without Elias they’d be back to regular funerals and half the basement level a minefield of misfortune.
“Let’s go Michael.” Gertrude says, ignoring him as she sweeps back to the door, assistant in tow as low practical heels click dangerously against stupidly wooden floors. “Such a waste.” echoes quietly back to him as the thick wood door thuds audibly back into the frame.
“That was stupid.” he sighs, carrying the kitten to his office. He takes his faded green throw from off the back of his chair and awkwardly bunches it into a nest. “Michael was just being polite, but I guess that’s why.” he wants to yell or smoke, but the case is only for desperate occasions, and he won’t let Jon see him in such a state, he obviously needs a stable adult figure.
Which Elias really isn’t. But Jon had latched on so quickly, and he can’t just distance himself can he? He should, it’s not normal to do this kind of thing, no matter how mature he is, Jon’s a child with a stable, if distant guardian. He collapses into his chair that’s stupidly large for the room and runs through his options.
Should he look into trying to adopt him? He has a steady job, a good position, and he was never charged for possession despite his smoking being publicised to the entire Uni campus. It could easily be waved away as gossip. But, to try to adopt a kid that lived with his grandmother, a living blood relative, just because he’s had his heart swindled away in what was essentially three meetings? He couldn’t.
He should just cut ties, there’d be no issues, he could continue as normal, but he thinks of too thin shoulders and seeing the world, the interactions within it as transactional. No, he can’t just leave that alone.
“There’s no winning, is there?” he asks the cat, who’s happily made itself at home in his blanket.
“No winning at what?” Jon asks, and Elias jumps, knees clatter painfully against solid wood, and a pained groan escapes him. “Why is there a cat in Artefact Storage?” and like any child drops his bag and approaches it immediately to start playing with it.
“Shelley, ah, Michael Shelley, one of Gertrude's assistants brought him in.” he frowns, it shouldn’t be five yet, he checks his watch, it’s three. “You’re two hours early.”
Jon stares at him wide eyed, the green somehow brighter as it peeks out from the shadows of his yellow raincoats hood. “What’s the cat’s name?”
“Jonathan.” Elias says as stern as he can manage, were all eight year old's this evasive?
“That’s a terrible name for a cat.” Jon huffs, and he resists the urge to bury his face into his hands. “And besides, she’s a girl. A regal lady who deserves a proper name.”
“Jon, why are you here so early?” his fingers tap impatiently across the desk, unsure of what to do without the familiar rolls of paper.
“I had a small window of opportunity and I took it.” Jon says, still kneeling with the kitten and squeezing its beans. “All the recordings I made are in my bag, I put them in a freezer bag just in case.”
“I’ll give you a statement if you tell me straight.” Elias tries, maybe he could just roll a slip of paper and go through the motions? “And thank you.” he pulls the plastic bag out, it’s stuffed full, the edges of the tapes carving white striations under the duress. How many had Jon read?
“I want one about being watched.” Jon replies, “I haven’t had one of those in a while.”
“A statement about a haunted Harry Houdini painting for a proper answer.” Elias offers. It was kept as a guide for dealing with paintings, one of the few foundational texts for newcomers. Though not particularly practical for how to deal with paintings that didn’t deal with evoking negative emotions. The cursed version of- what was that famous melty clock painting called again? -‘The Dissolution of Reality’ or something, had all sorts of strange effects, like ant infestations and quiet chitinous sounds matched by the clicking of dry wings. He’d catalogued it under ‘Possible Pandemic’ instead of ‘Collapsing Sanity’ which was always one’s first assumption with surrealist art, but that tended to be too obvious to possibly be true. Though the person before him hadn’t thought so and some unfortunate soul had become an ant colony within a month. The department had shut down for a week.
“My grandmother grounded me for wandering off last Friday.” Jon says after a moment with an easy shrug of his shoulders. “But there’s nothing for me in Bournemouth.”
“Bournemouth is a two hour drive.” Elias says, to which Jon gives an eye roll. “You can’t just travel four hours every week, that’s not-”
“I’m not a child Elias.” Jon huffs, not even looking at him. “She won’t even notice I’m gone, her book club always runs late, and Mr. Derwent is hosting dinner tonight, so that’s like an extra hour.”
“You’re eight,” however spooky and capable Jon may be, he’s still a child. “And how long does she normally leave you alone?” his fingers flick through the hours, four hours for commute plus two until five, plus however long dinner would take, if that was even still on the table. He takes a deep, fortifying breath and evenly says “She just leaves you for seven, eight hours for a book club?”
“Four hours for a book club and dinner, three for regular errands and travel time. And an extra one since Mr. Derwent always insists on having dessert platters after dinner. Those terrible low sugar ones that taste like cardboard too.” Jon corrects as if that’s the important part. “There’s always dinner in the fridge, and I usually stay out until five anyways, so it’s not really seven hours.”
His teeth grind down, jaw throbbing. He wonders if Jon is doing this deliberately.
“That’s hardly appropriate.” Elias says. Jon would react poorly to a direct criticism of his grandmother if this behaviour was normal, he itches for a smoke.
“That’s just how it is, it’s not like I’m easy to be around for extended periods anyways.” Jon says casually, and that sounds like a ridiculous amount of neglect that needed to be unpacked. Jon helps the kitten stand on its hind legs as he gently waves its paws. “I’m thinking Duchess, she’s quite the graceful dancer.”
“Like the 'Aristocats'?” Elias asks instead of pushing the subject, like he wants to, watching as Jon’s brows furrowed in confusion. But his shoulders have loosened. He needs to plan this out before he pushes forward.
“You know, like the Disney movie?”
“Not really, no, I don’t watch movies.” Jon shrugs. Fuck it, Elias is adopting this poor child. He’ll reconnect with his god awful relatives if it will get him what he needs.
“You’re watching this one, Artefact Storage has a VCR.” there hadn’t been any reports of haunted VCR tapes, but since every other technology has some haunting or another, Elias had managed to wrangle one of those out of Wright, in case of future occurrences of course. Though in retrospect it’s a terrible idea to play said cursed video, was he high when he requested it? It sounded like an idea he’d have when high. Another tick in the ‘Wright clearly doesn’t know how to run a supernatural research institute’ box.
Anyways, it didn’t get much professional use, it’s not like they had videos for training new employees. Elias mostly used it on especially slow days, where he would sit and keep watch of Artefact Storage with little else to do. But he’s rewatched the tapes so often he can recite all of the movies by heart, so it's mostly just collecting dust at this point. “It’ll keep you occupied while I work.” he says to Jon’s wholly unconvinced face.
“What do you even do when there aren’t any new artefacts?” Jon asks, and he can feel the weighty gaze of the eyes locked on him as he grabs a box off the top of a filing cabinet. Beneath tidy stacks of files is a whole box of movies, movies for every age and genre.
“I sit alone with my thoughts.” Elias says, shuffling through the plastic cases. “There’s not much to do between reorganizing the shelves again, or dusting. It’s all very boring, hence the movies.” they’d be able to do more retrievals if they actually had a full staff, but he doubt that’ll ever happen
“Is that why the department’s so-” Jon asks, hand waving vaguely as he curls over Duchess and into the green throw.
“Exactly.” he nods, handing Jon the agreed upon statement, and settles behind his desk as the accordion brings in Chevalier’s playful tune. Even after watching the English version multiple times, it still felt odd hearing the blend of English and French instead of the pure French of his childhood.
He splits his attention between skimming statements, making a short bullet list of things to introduce Jon to, questions he should ask and calls he’d unfortunately have to make, and of course, watching Jon’s reaction to the movie.
Jon isn’t all that invested at first, mostly sticking to reading his own statements quietly, the soft whispers of fear and horror blending with the bouncing instrumental and playful dialogue. But then, they hit the midway point as ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’ starts to peak and the statement and- were the tape recorders just following Jon? Not important, what is, is that Jon has become fully drawn into the movie.
Elias should ask, shouldn’t he? Before he makes any moves to take him in, but it’s still too early, was there such a thing as a right time for this? He sighs and waits for the credits to roll to ask the question that’s been eating at him.
“Are you happy at your grandmother's Jon?” he asks, watching as the eight year old stiffens.
“Yes.” Jon says, too quickly for it to be true. He should try to trap him in a contradiction, to work out the answer for himself, anything else would be too heavy handed for Jon.
“Then why are you here?” Elias asks, pinching the bridge of his nose in hopes of relieving some tension. It doesn’t work.
“We have an arrangement, or have you forgotten already?” Jon casts a disdainful look towards his briefcase, as if Elias was still some schoolboy who spent all hours drifting through on a cloud of earthy smoke. He resists the urge to drag his hand down his face, or tug at his hair, he can’t show signs of irritability.
“You’re doing this on purpose.” Elias says, what does one do with such a child? “I won’t reward you with another bribe.” he settles on, but Jon’s expression furls, scrunching in rising fury.
“I won’t just accept every bribe sent my way, like- like a child!” Jon spits, eyes flashing.
“Then how am I supposed to treat you Jon?” Elias snaps, standing up from his chair. “You’re eight and I want to respect your boundaries, truly I do.” he needs to pace, to move and get his frustration back under a manageable level. “But there’s clearly something wrong in your home life, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.”
“What’s so wrong with it?” Jon snaps back, feedback crackling as his words catch and break “I’m fed, and sheltered, I go to school and she buys me new books when I run out- there’s nothing wrong!”
“You’ve wandered into the office of a man you’ve met all of three times and made yourself at home.” how does Jon not understand how strange and dangerous this is between all his knowing and experiences, “You can apparently disappear for hours on end, where your only punishment is to be grounded and left unsupervised, not to mention-”
“That’s not it at all!” Jon shouts, cutting him off as he climbs to his feet. “You don’t get it!”
“Then explain to me how this is okay. Tell me how many other children you know, that think this is normal.” Elias says, his anger a fine tremor that has his head and bones buzzing, but his mind is clear, too clear, like placid waters that reflect all he doesn’t want to see.
“Gerry does this sort of thing all the time.” Jon sneers, lips curving in a self satisfied smile that was all teeth and no sense.
“Then you can understand full well why I am concerned.” Elias says, watching as Jon stumbles, sneer wiped clean. “Do you think Mary Keay is a good mother? A good woman?”
“Well don’t bother, I didn’t ask for it.” Jon turns away, fists balling as he curls in on himself. “And if anything you should deliver this speech to Gerry, since he clearly needs it more than me.”
“Gerard hasn’t come back and he hasn’t called. I can’t just march down to Morden and take him away unless he’s open to help.” Elias swallows the snarling hopelessness that wants to bite and tear until everyone else knows the same. His breaths are coming faster, and the office is growing too small, too many eyes bearing down and condemning him for his failings. “And why wouldn’t I care about you? I like you Jon, and for some odd reason you’ve decided that I'm worth something when-” he collapses back into his chair, bones hollow and blood burned cold, he’s so very tired. “It’s a terrible thing to be lonely Jon, you shouldn’t be so well acquainted with it.”
Jon’s anger seems to dissolve and his voice is so very small, like the whisper of tape being rewound. “You really shouldn’t. The arrangement was a mistake.”
His breath catches on sharp, throat clogging frost, and Elias lurches clumsily from his seat. “Jon, what are you saying?”
“I’m ending this before it gets out of hand.” Jon says, voice wobbling as he turns on his heel and races out the door.
“Jonathan!” Elias calls stumbling after him, limbs uncooperative as yellow disappears behind Artefact Storage's door.
He flings it open and runs straight into a thin chest.
“Get the hell out of my way!” Elias snarls trying to shove whoever it was out of his path.
They’re a wall, immovable, and they catch him, flailing discordant limbs and all.
“Woah, hey, um calm down.” they shush him gently as if he’s some emotionally unstable toddler and it sends his head into a violent spin.
“Let go!” Elias throws his elbows as hard as he can and his captor lets out a groan of pain as their grip loosens, and Elias slips out and sprints forward and out of the Institute, fat droplets of rain fall like thick curses, plastering him in suffocating misery.
There’s not even a flicker of yellow to be seen in the downpour.
He’s on the ground, knees throbbing in the aftershocks and numb in a way that has nothing to do with the rain. He closes his eyes and lets white noise wash over his ears.
When he opens them he’s back in his office and Michael Shelley is fussing over the cat.
“Why are you here?” he asks, tongue thick and leaden.
“You uh- you had an episode.” Shelley stutters, as if Elias hadn’t been present for his own meltdown. “I couldn’t just leave you there.”
“What do you want Shelley?” he’s too tired to glare, too tired to move or think.
“Well, um it’s uh five, and I thought maybe-”
“Just take the cat and leave me be.” Elias runs a hand through his hair, still soaked, he hasn’t lost much time in his fit.
“Your plans?” Shelley gestures awkwardly at him.
“Cancelled, did you not notice the child in the bright yellow jacket?” Elias asks, toes curling in thankfully dry socks.
“What kid? You just sort of burst out of Artefact Storage and started swinging and shouting.” Shelley smiles weakly, as Elias frowns, face pinching as he squints at the man. “For good reason, I’m sure.” is tacked on hastily and almost certainly disingenuous. He doesn’t want to look at Shelley anymore, with his rain spattered glasses and misty eyes. He looks at his desk, at the page of bullet points spotted with enough water to make the ink bleed and feels a knot build in his throat.
“Take Duchess and get out of my office.” Elias sighs, and when Shelley hesitates he barks rough and threaded with worn anger “Are you deaf as well as blind? Get out, now.”
Shelley retreats, and Elias feels a dull pang as he wonders if this will be circulating next week, perhaps it’ll be spun as a psychotic break triggered by withdrawal. Won’t that be fun? He rips the paper, and feels nothing, so he rips it again, and again, and again. Until it’s in a pile of scraps that he can’t be bothered to clean up.
He stands up, shoves the tapes and their player into his briefcase, and briefly debates changing into one of his emergency suits, but what’s the point?
He goes home, to a too big, too quiet townhouse that’s never felt like his. Gifted to him after he got his research job, and something he had scrimped and pinched every extra penny to gain enough money to pay off, for the second his parents attempted to use it against him. Some extra as well for whatever else they would attempt to leverage over him, tuition, his first year of bills, all of it painstakingly kept track of and squirreled away.
The only sign that there's a resident in this spartan showhome is the letter he’s been ignoring for the past week, familiar looping script scrawled across expensive paper, and the filled voicemail tapes that were sloppily stacked on his entry table.
It was already a shit day, may as well add to it. He rips open the letter as he kicks off his shoes, a funeral invitation, his grandfather, one of the few relatives he hadn’t despised. He really does screw up at every turn. He grabs a handful of tapes and shuffles to the bathroom.
He slides into the hardly used tub, socks now sopping after a long walk squelch unpleasantly, and he dumps his briefcases contents into his lap. He plays the tape already in there and picks up the silver case that's clattered to the bottom of the tub.
His hands tremble in a way they haven’t for a long time as he opens the case that he’s always kept tucked out of sight, but never out of mind. He lifts the first pristine roll to his lips and lights it; takes each pull deep into his lungs and feels his hands stop shaking. It’s not good, not fresh, his lungs are burning as fiercely as his eyes, but it takes the edge off as their argument replays. He picks apart every misstep and listens for every quaver and pause. And when the tape ends he rewinds it, and presses play again.
The spliff has burned down to his fingers and he drops it into the pools that have formed beneath him, but he doesn’t stop, he pulls out a new one, and pulls and pulls until his head is full of clouds.