Sasha James stumbles into Artifact Storage, her legs aching and heart racing. She had been looking for the manual release and ended up here. She hates this place, she knows, but she can’t leave, not with the worms right outside the door. She puts a hand on the wall beside her to steady herself and catch her breath, but the wall is not a wall at all. It is bright yellow and cracked, just so, and when she puts her weight on it, it creaks and falls away, shrieking like laughter as she falls and falls and falls, inside and away, far away from Artifact Storage or the Institute or anyone who ever knew her, to a place where she barely knows anything at all.
Sasha James is missing. Martin Blackwood, too, but Tim Stoker is not asking after Martin when the ECDC releases him from their quarantine. Jonathan Sims has been out of quarantine for some minutes when Tim drifts over to him, sitting beside him on the steps to the Institute. They’re wrapped in enough bandages between them to make the world’s most miserable mummy, and Tim pulls part of the bright orange shock blanket off of Jon’s shoulders to join him beneath it and wait.
Sasha James and Martin Blackwood are missing, and with the state of Tim and Jon’s bodies after Jane Prentiss was through with them, neither man feels particularly optimistic about their friends’ chances. If they haven’t been found and treated by now…
Neither man says as much. Jon asks anyone who ambles near enough if they’ve seen Sasha James, if they’ve heard from Martin Blackwood.
Finally, someone tells him yes. Martin Blackwood surfaced from the tunnels just a few moments ago, and he found a body. Gertrude Robinson, shot three times, sitting deep below the Institute. Jon pushes the blanket off his shoulders, pushes off the steps to stand, pushing forward with a where is Martin? He wants to see Martin, he wants to ask about the body. He ignores Tim as he moves, as Tim reaches to grab his arm, as Tim asks what about Sasha James, have you found Sasha James?
She is still missing when Tim and Jon and Martin finally go home.
Sasha James hates this place, she knows, but she can’t leave, not without a door. There are mirrors, she thinks, and some paintings. There are lamps and walls and a thick, black rug. And there is Michael. In every mirror, in every painting, there is Michael. Down every hall, in front and behind, there is Michael. In the air around her she breathes in its awful laugh, watching her from afar as she tries to push her way through these horrible corridors.
It had wanted to be her friend, once. Is this friendship? She doesn’t think so, but it’s so hard to think anything here, to know anything at all.
Is this friendship? She doesn’t know. Maybe Michael doesn’t know, either.
No one finds Sasha James as they clear the Institute of worms. There are no remains, except for those of Prentiss. Tim pictures Sasha James when he tries to remember the moment he and Jon locked eyes with Jane Prentiss on the other side of the trap door, pictures Sasha James when he looks in the mirror and sees slowly closing holes. Sasha James does not heal, her injuries stagnant in his mind, thumb-sized indentations covering every inch of her.
Tim gives up on sick leave early, packs a familiar backpack, heads to the Institute. The trapdoor is unlocked and he climbs down, even as his legs protest the action. He traipses the tunnels at length, until finally, he hears a sound. There are footsteps up ahead, and he runs after them, hoping beyond hope that maybe, maybe, maybe--
Tim comes face to face with Jon, who startles and drops his torch and tape recorder both. Tim feels relieved, of course. He should have known he’s not the only one looking for her. Jon was--is, is, is--her friend, too. Jon would look for her.
He says as much, and Jon has the audacity to look confused. It’s clear on his face even in Tim’s torchlight, faded as it has from hours of search. He isn’t looking for Sasha James, he is looking for Gertrude Robinson, looking for clues on who might have killed her.
Jon hushes Tim as fury finds Tim’s voice, as he snaps about the futility of looking for the perpetrator of a months-old crime. What about their friend? She might not be gone yet! She might still be lost, and they might still be able to find her, to save her! What about her?
She probably would have starved to death by now, Jon tries to rationalize, or bled to death, or she was chewed and burrowed to death, or some horrific combination of all of these things, but Tim does not hear him. Jon is not the person Tim thought he was, and Tim tells him as much. If he won’t help Tim look, then Tim will look alone. His footsteps echo as he storms away, but his words echo longer.
Sasha James finds it is impossible to starve or bleed to death.
No matter how many times her stomach rumbles--She thinks it’s her stomach, at least. A lot of her has learned to rumble, after so much time being lost--Sasha James cannot starve.
No matter how many mirrors she shatters, or how much glass she shatters and cuts her hands and face and any other part of her that rumbles. No matter how many shards imbed themselves into her skin--that she loses as they burrow, as she herself becomes maze-like with cuts and blood and misplaced rumbles--she cannot bleed to death.
All Sasha James can do--All anything can do, here--is become lost.
Tim never forgives Jon. In Jon, Tim's grief and hostility are misconstructed as guilt. Maybe that makes Jon feel better, helps him cover his own fear, to think Tim is acting against him due to something outside of them, outside of Jon’s own actions. To think it's all guilt, all inside Tim, and not Jon at all. Maybe that makes Jon feel safer. It definitely makes Tim more familiar.
Sasha James does not turn up, and if Tim and Jon see each other in the tunnels, they simply turn back towards where they came.
Michael appears again.
It is not the type to backstab, which is why it stabs Jon right in the stomach, where Jon can see as Michael twists its fingers before pulling away.
I took Sasha James, it says, and then it is gone, following Helen Richardson out its horrible yellow door.
It is remarkably easy to buy an axe in central London. Jon does not know if an axe will hurt a sentient traveling door, but the best way to prove or disprove a hypothesis is to test it.
Jon’s test is… Inconclusive.
The door opens as he swings, and the momentum carries him inside the hallways. Michael’s laugh reverberates loud enough to cover the sound of glass shattering, or perhaps that is what the sound of shattering glass always sounded like, or perhaps this is not glass he breaks at all. The axe is as heavy as it is useless, but Jon swings it at every wall, only to find himself opening plasterboard and stone and flesh and clay and revealing more hallways on the other side, stretching far behind where they should be able to. Jon is exhausted, out of breath, and bleeding, but he pushes past shredded wallpaper and swings yet again.
Martin and Tim do not leave at Jon’s insistence. They follow him back to the Archives, where a door which never was sits, and a man who never should have been relaxes at Sasha James’s desk. It smiles when it sees them, and it is dizzying in all the wrong ways.
Maybe you can find Sasha James! it tells them, before pulling them into its corridors.
There is a moment where Sasha James is not alone in the corridors, though she does not know it. She does not know much of anything, anymore. All she knows--all she understands, or can, could ever understand--is what it is to be lost.
They do not find her.
Michael deposits Jon somewhere deep below the Institute, leaving him shaking and dragging his axe behind him. Jurgen Leitner finds Jon, then, and promises to guide him back to the Archives. It would be so dreadful, he says, to be lost.
In the interest of saving Jon, of guiding Jon, Leitner promises answers. They talk as Jon stumbles towards the Institute, and when they reach the trapdoor, he asks for a break. Just a moment, just to steady himself long enough to put his head back on correctly. Leitner grants it, though when Jon returns, Leitner’s own head is no longer on. Maybe the axe wasn't useless, after all.
There is little else for Jon to do but run.
Michael spits Tim and Martin out in the Archives. It has forgotten, as have they, that time is supposed to pass the same for everyone. Tim and Martin are two weeks older than everyone else when they leave the corridors a few hours later. Leitner’s body is still dripping lukewarm blood onto the carpet when they find him.
That means Jon wasn’t in the hallways, too, Tim tells Martin. Not that he would have gone looking for her if he had been, Tim tells Martin. It must be nice to know he’s safe, Tim tells Martin.
You don’t know us as well as you think you do, Martin tells Tim.
They do not tell each other anything else.
The Distortion makes itself scarce. Jon does not like or trust Michael, and won’t ever believe it to be a friend.
So it waits, and bides its time. It has the perfect costume in its closet, ready for a change as when the moment is right. All it has to do is wait, as the Archivist throws himself to the Desolation, to the Vast, to the Hunt.
Three marks. Seven down, seven to go.
All Sasha James can do is become lost. The corridors shift around her, make themselves into a path, as Michael spins his tale, buys time for Sasha James to stumble, to find a door, to open it.
All Sasha James can do is open the door, and she is gone, and Michael is gone, and Sasha stands in front of Jon and smiles, relieved. It is warm, and familiar, and horribly wrong.
Jon recoils, but Sasha pushes her hands into human shape and reaches for him, stops just short of him.
“I made it. I overpowered Michael,” It says, pleading, “So I could help you. I came to save you.”
“You aren’t Sasha,” Jon insists, and Sasha looks heartbroken.
“I am Sasha,” Sasha insists, “I just wanted to save you. Michael got distracted, so I stepped in. I didn’t want you to die.”
Jon cannot think of the last time someone told him they wanted that.
“Come on. You can trust me. I’ll take you home.” Sasha says, “I’m your friend.”
And Sasha James is lost.
The instant the yellow door appears in the Archives, Tim is on edge. Even when Jon stumbles through it on shaking, weak legs, struggling from a month of disuse, Tim feels no better. Until, of course, Tim realizes who supports Jon, whose shoulders Jon’s arm is wrapped around.
“Sasha?!” Tim asks, as Sasha eases Jon into the desk recently commandeered by Melanie King. When Sasha looks up, though, to meet Tim’s eyes, Tim blanches. Sasha’s face is dizzying in all the wrong ways.
“Tim!” Sasha says, and Sasha runs towards him, reaches for him, but he pushes his hands out.
“Stay away from me!” Tim screams, and Sasha’s flinch is so much clearer without needing to heed the conservation of mass. “You aren’t her! What did you do to her?! Get away from me!”
“Tim?” Sasha’s voice echoes unnaturally in the cramped, dingy Archives, making Sasha’s hurt linger in the air far longer than it would for a human voice. Jon flinches for Sasha, and he reaches towards Tim.
“It’s her, Tim,” he insists, and his voice and throat ache after a month of silence and screaming in equal measure, “It’s Sasha. She-- She saved me. Sasha saved me. She’s our friend. She’s Sasha.”
“That. Is not. Sasha,” Tim spits, and turns, and leaves. Sasha’s shoulders slump, and Jon reaches for her.
“He just misses… misses you. We all have,” Jon assures her.
“But I’m right here,” Sasha mumbles, and she sits down at Tim’s desk. A picture of Sasha James hangs up, taped to his monitor. In the picture, her arm is slung around Tim’s shoulders, and the photo ends abruptly at her wrist. Tim has ripped the photo in half where his own arm rests around Jon, and Jon and Martin and Tim’s arm and her hand went into the trash. Without the human hand with all the bones in all the right places, it is hard to distinguish Sasha from Sasha James at all. “I’m Sasha.”
“I’m sure he’ll come around. He hasn’t been himself lately,” Jon explains. “None of us have.”
“Was I supposed to just let Michael kill you?” Sasha asks, and Jon laughs, though there’s no humor in it. It’s been a long time since Jon laughed. A month pales in comparison.
“Tim might have preferred that,” Jon admits, and Sasha’s face crumples.
“Oh, Jon,” Sasha says, and she reaches a hand across to lay a hand on top of his. It feels like stones in wet leather, and Jon grimaces for a moment, until he sees Sasha’s face fall. “You believe me, don’t you? I just wanted to help.”
“I know,” Jon says, “I know.”
Sasha smiles, and it is familiar and wrong, but so much of Jon’s life is wrong, now. At least she is smiling. When was the last time anyone smiled at him?
Sasha drops in again, and Tim dismisses her.
He doesn’t want it near him, doesn’t want to see some monster wearing his best friend’s face. He doesn’t want to look at it, because when he does, it’s with the certainty that if he had just made a different turn back then, in the corridors, he would have found her. Two weeks they had been there, and Sasha James had been there, and Tim had not saved her.
This thing is just as much a mockery of Tim as it is a mockery of her, and he hates it.
So Sasha goes to Jon.
After all, she says, Jon understands. This world they’ve found themselves in has changed them, and just because Tim no longer recognizes the people they’ve become doesn’t mean they don’t care.
“I just wanted to help,” She says, again, and Jon nods, “That’s what you wanted, too. You just wanted to protect yourself, and the others. You just wanted to help,” and Jon nods, and she presses on, “You just wanted to stop feeling afraid.”
“I haven’t,” Jon admits, “Stopped feeling afraid.”
“I haven’t, either,” Sasha responds, and with Jon’s understanding, she continues, “I… I took someone. A man, wandering the halls of an old tenement. He’s dead now. It was nourishing, but… I’m scared. I didn’t like it. Is this what it’s like for you? The statements, the dreams...”
And Jon nods, again, trying to reassure her with something akin to a smile, but the angle is all wrong, too sad, too heavy. Sasha doesn’t comment, of course.
“But we’re not… I just did what I had to. I just wanted to protect you. Does that make me a monster? Did coming back make me a monster? I didn’t choose this! I-- We didn’t choose this!” Sasha says, “I just-- I’m your friend. I’m Tim’s friend. I don’t care if he believes me or not. There’s no turning back now, not for us. If I have to become a monster to protect you all, then… Then that’s okay. Right?”
And Jon nods.
“We can help,” Jon agrees, “We can’t help what we’re becoming, but… But we can help. Help each other, help Tim, help save the world.”
He laughs a bit at the end, unable to deny how corny he sounds. Sasha grins, but the angle is wrong. Jon doesn’t comment, of course.
“The Distortion and the Archivist, making the world better,” Sasha says, mirth in her voice and her eyes and free from her smile, “Thank you. I feel a lot better, now.”
“Of course,” Jon says, “That’s what friends do.”
The Unknowing approaches. Sasha isn’t by often. She tries, of course. Tim does not want to see Sasha.
The next time she stops by, she finds the picture is gone from the monitor.
“Who am I even sad for?” Tim asks, and Jon opens his mouth to speak. Tim doesn’t let him. “My best friend is gone, and this thing walks around like it owns the place, wearing her skin and pretending to be her.”
“It’s still her, Tim. She’s still Sasha,” Jon says.
“Is it, though? Sasha hated Michael. She didn’t want anything to do with it, or its friendship. And you think she chose to become it?”
“I-- It’s not that simple,” Jon insists, “She-- If she didn’t, I would have--”
“What, died?” Tim asks, “So instead, you let her die for you? You let her die in your place, and you tell yourself that thing is Sasha so you don’t have to acknowledge it?”
Jon shuts his mouth so quickly Tim can hear his teeth click behind his lips, but his eyes are wide and staring, and Tim notices for the first time that they’re a bright, unnatural green. He thinks they might have been brown, once, but he doesn’t care enough to remember.
“I’m…” Tim couldn’t care less about how this sentence ends. “We aren’t your enemy, Tim. I’m not your enemy. I’m still...”
“What, my friend?” Tim surprises himself with how much vitriol he hears in his own voice.
“Me,” Jon nearly whispers.
“You know what, Jon?” Tim says, “I think you’re right.”
Jon perks up, and Tim wonders if knocking him back down will feel satisfying.
“I guess I just never knew you as well as I thought I did,” Tim says, “Thought you were just rough around the edges, but me and Sasha’d wear you down. Martin sure seemed convinced you were nice, underneath it all. But maybe we were all wrong. Maybe you’ve always been a monster. Maybe that’s why you get along so well with that thing.”
Sasha assures him that it’s just because of what happened to Danny. They’ll wear him down, she assures him.
Jon tells Tim about their plan, and with the promise of explosives, Tim is almost amenable to Jon’s presence for the first time since last July. They sit together over a map of the wax museum, and Jon’s arm bumps Tim’s as Daisy explains to their group how they’ll bring the Circus to its knees, and Jon remembers a bright orange blanket and the last day he felt anything close to close with a man who could have been one of his closest friends.
And then he hears the familiar creeks of a door, and he smiles at the woman behind it, and Tim gets up and moves.
Sasha offers her help. She offers her doors, for a quick escape when the Unknowing begins. Tim tells Sasha exactly what he thinks of said doors and where they can be shoved, and Sasha ducks out and does not return.
Jon tucks that away, tells himself that after everything, he’ll assure her, just like she has assured him, so many times. They’ll wear Tim down, and Martin, too. They're friends.
The Unknowing begins, and all they can do is dance, whether they mean to or not. The trigger passes hands as those inside the auditorium become unsure whose hands are on their side, or which hands are theirs, or what hands are, until the detonator lands in Tim’s hand.
Jon pulls Tim back to himself, with power Tim will never forgive him for having, or for using. Tim will never forgive Jon for a lot of things--For abandoning Sasha James, for abandoning Tim Stoker. For pretending that thing had been Sasha James, for pretending that thing had been their friend, for pretending to have been Tim’s friend. For not being Tim’s friend. For abandoning Tim. For abandoning Sasha James.
Tim doesn’t say all that. He doesn’t have time, and he doesn’t think Jon can hear him, anyway. He glances back, and he finds knocking Jon down really doesn’t feel satisfying.
He adds a thank you, because he doesn't think Jon can hear him, anyway, and he pulls the trigger.
And Tim Stoker is lost.
And Jonathan Sims is…
He sees a lot of people who are friends, and more people who are not.
He sees a lot of places which once had people in them, but do not anymore.
He sees a lot of things which are not people and are not friends.
He does not see any friends who are not people.
Georgie is the first person Jon sees when he wakes up, and Basira is the second. Neither of them are happy to see him. He’s fine, after being dead for six months. Humans don’t do that, and Tim is all the proof they need.
What does that make Jon, then? What is Jon now?
They don’t have an answer for Jon--Not one Jon really wants to hear, anyway--And they leave.
Sasha is the third. She smiles when she sees Jon, and the angle is wrong, but it always is. She sits at the edge of Jon’s bed.
“I’m sorry. Tim is…” She says. Jon shakes his head.
“No, I’m sorry. He was your best friend.” But this time Sasha shakes her head.
“Not at the end,” She says, and she puts a hand on the blanket beside Jon’s leg, just short of Jon’s fingers. She looks at their hands--His scarred, and hers jagged--then looks at his eyes. “My best friend is back, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Jon finds himself sniffling, needing a deep breath in lungs that have gone so long without use. His chest feels tight, and he doesn’t know if it’s disuse or something else. He hasn’t a lot of practice in breathing, or in friendship, or the other simple things so many others have taken for granted, despite needing them to survive.
He puts his hand over Sasha's, and it feels horrible, and unnatural, and wrong, and it is familiar, and he smiles.
Martin hates Sasha. He didn’t, at first. He’d been wary, sure, but she’d brought Jon back, and Jon seemed to like her. Tim had hated her right away, but Tim hated everyone by that point--He hated Jon, and he hated Martin, and he hated Melanie and Basira. And maybe Martin hadn’t been close to Sasha James the way Jon and Tim had been, but he still wanted her back. So he’d been… Cautiously optimistic. And perhaps that had been his first and most dangerous mistake.
Because Tim and Jon died, and Sasha did not mourn.
She showed up to Tim’s funeral, sure, and she stopped in to visit Jon at the hospital. She stood at Tim’s gravestone (A symbol, for there hadn’t been enough body to bury) and Jon’s beside (A symbol, for a body is all that’s left of him). But not once, in the dozens of times that he saw her, did Martin see Sasha stop smiling.
“What are you smiling about?” He asks her, once, and she grins wider, and the angle is all wrong. Still, there is mirth in her smile and her eyes and her voice as she responds.
“He’s looking better, don’t you think?” She asks. She does not gesture, nor does she break away from Martin’s eyes, but he knows she means the man all but brain dead on the bed between them. Jon looks so frail lying there, more scar tissue than skin now that his wounds from the Unknowing have finally healed, his face sickly without blood flowing behind his cheeks. Even four months unconscious, he still had bags under his eyes, and Martin is sure if he opened them they’d be dull and sunken. That scares him more than anything, knowing that Jon’s gaze can go dim, that Jon could look at him and he wouldn’t even feel it.
Nothing about him looks well, and nothing about this could make anyone who loved Jon smile. In that moment, Martin knows it: Sasha is not their friend.
“...And I don’t think Martin trusts me anymore,” Sasha says, “I think he resents me because I couldn’t help you. Or Tim. And maybe he’s right to. I-I’ve had power, but it wasn’t enough. Tim is dead, Daisy is gone, Melanie and Basira are miserable, and Martin hates me. You were… So I had to step up. Get stronger. Please, you have to understand, I didn’t do it because I’m a monster. I did it because I had to.”
“What did you do?” Jon asks. His voice is soft, and there is no need for static to force Sasha to answer. They’re the only ones in the Archives, sitting in desks that no longer find use by anyone. Melanie stopped doing work months ago, and Tim even before her. Basira never worked in the first place, up until Daisy went, and now Basira works anywhere but the here. Martin still works, but not here. Never here. So Jon is alone, here, except for Sasha.
“I took… Took one of Michael’s projects. Marcus MacKenzie. He… Michael had tormented him for months, and I just… I was starving, and I needed… If something happened to me--to us --who would look after them? I needed to get stronger. So I took Marcus MacKenzie, and it felt good, so I didn’t stop,” Sasha explains, and she wills Jon to understand, “I just… What if I had been stronger sooner? I’ve always been this, ever since I became Sasha. I’m always going to be Sasha. If I had just accepted it sooner--Accepted me sooner--hadn’t become hung up on good and evil and monster and human … Could I have saved him?”
Sasha lowers her head into too-long hands, hides her eyes behind too-long fingers. The air cracks and shakes as she speaks, and she allows Jon to think that is inherent to her voice, that her heart is what has that effect on the sound.
Jon thinks, for one long, horrible moment, about the Unknowing. He remembers asking Tim to See him, snapping Tim back into his own body. He remembers trying to See Nikola, and finding her. He remembers her knocking him down, and forcing Tim to deal with her instead. If he had been stronger, could he have…?
He frowns, lost in thought, and behind her hands, Sasha smiles.
Jon feeds. He feels guilty, a bit. Sasha assures him it’s for the best. It’s his nature, after all. What use is feeling guilty, when he’s helping his friends?
So Jon feeds. Sasha helps him, walks along the streets of London while he searches to keep him safe from secondary consumers. They talk idly as they search for a statement. Jon holds onto her arm as she listens to his rambling, and she laughs and nods at all the right spots, and Jon smiles.
They don’t talk about it when they get back to the Archives. Basira and Melanie and Martin wouldn’t understand, even if they’re the ones Jon and Sasha are doing it for.
Not that it matters. They haven’t seen Martin in months, and for Jon’s safety, they have to avoid Melanie. The only other person they see is Basira, but she drifts in and out, looking for something to ground her with Daisy gone.
Jon feeds again. He feels guilty, a bit. But less than he did the last time.
It’s actually Melanie who stopped the attack by the Flesh (Sasha tells Jon that had been feeding, for Melanie. She’s well on her way to becoming part of the Slaughter by now). Sasha only helped clean up afterward, but sweeping the stragglers of the attack away had enough to put Sasha in the neutral-to-benign monster category with Melanie and Basira, so she is more than happy to take a bit of credit. She holds onto Jared Hopworth and she waits until the coffin arrives, and she listens to Jon lament needing an anchor.
“You know who I need?” Jon sighs, “The Boneturner.”
“I have good news,” Sasha says, “Because I know exactly where to find him.”
The rib won’t work, of course. Sasha knows what an anchor really is. But he’s only five marks away, now, and when Jon sets his rib down to throw himself into the Buried, well. That will knock out two!
They go out to lunch together before Jon throws himself into the Buried.
Sasha puts her hand on Jon’s shoulder, and asks him to remember her, so that he’ll never be lost. Jon smiles. The angles are just right, and isn’t that something?
Jon climbs inside without so much as a moment’s hesitation. He’s stronger now, and he has his anchor. He’ll find Daisy.
There is no doubt in his mind.
“I know. ”
“The way out?”
“No. There is n-no out. What have I done? Oh, god, what have I done? ”
“N-Not alone, though.”
“No. No, not alone.”
“The-The Hunt, it can’t reach me here. I’m s-scared, but- But I-I feel more- Feel more me… Than I have for years . Maybe all my life. The Hunt was me-- But I don’t-- I don’t think I liked it. I think it just made me need it. I hurt. A lot of people. And some who- who I shouldn’t have."
Daisy chokes and cries and Jon does not squeeze her hand, even if he thinks most people would, because he knows how much touch can hurt.
“But down here, where I-I can’t hear the blood, anymore, I-I don’t- I don’t know who I am without, without the chase. I just know that I-I don’t like who I was, back outside. I don’t want to be here again. I want-- to be-- Better."
There is so much misery in Daisy, now. But it is not the coffin which makes her miserable.
“I don’t want t-to be a s-sadistic predator again. I-I don’t want to hobble around like some-- pathetic wounded prey, either. I don’t know which would be worse. But I’m sc-scared now. That I won’t ever get the choice.”
Guilt pools inside Jon. When he breathes, he doesn’t take in dirt, his lungs far too strangled already with a sickly pulp of regret and shame. When had he become the sadistic predator? When had he become something others were afraid of?
The power hadn’t helped him. He’s still trapped here. He couldn’t save Daisy, and he couldn’t save himself. What did that power do, then, if it only hurt others?
“You’ll get that choice,” Jon says, and in his hand, Daisy’s does not feel leathery, or wrong, or like stones. It’s warm, and rough, and it shakes just as badly as his own. “I want to be better, too. I want to be better. We can be better.”
And Alice "Daisy" Tonner is found.
And the Archivist is…
Not alone, when he pulls himself free from the coffin. He and Daisy laugh, and cry, and they do not hold each other a second longer than they need to. Basira is waiting, ready to tear Jon a new one. He doesn’t know how Basira hears them return over the sound of all the tape recorders, but Daisy’s face lights up the instant she enters the room, so maybe it doesn’t matter at all.
Jon beams when Sasha enters the room, after Basira has pulled Daisy away.
“We can be better,” he tells her, “We don’t need to-- To feed, or to hurt anyone. Daisy is giving up the Hunt. We can- We’re going to be better. We can be better.”
He sounds so relieved, and so what can Sasha do but smile? There is nothing to be said about the angles her face takes, and what angles a smile should be.
“Melanie is pretty far gone,” Sasha notes, sitting on one of Jon’s shelves. Her body shouldn’t fit there, but she’s never needed to worry about the conservation of mass. Jon sits at his desk with Daisy across from him, pouring over a statement. He’s been doing far more of them since giving up his meals, and it shows in the way his too-thin arms shake, just so. The shaking and hunger are more obvious in Daisy, of course, gaunt and shivering like a stray in the rain. It’s truly unfortunate. They could make such a ruthless pair, if they let themselves. Piercing eyes, gnashing teeth.
“The Slaughter, right?” Jon asks. He hums, and static backs his voice when he speaks again. “She still has that bullet pumping violence into her, so she can’t-- What?”
“What?” Daisy echoes, “What did you just say?”
“I don’t know. I… It’s in her leg, just above the tibia, but if we-- If we--” Jon stands, “We should go find Basira. I know how we can help her.”
Sasha stands aside. Daisy can’t help--The blood and high chance for violence make her unsuitable, and someone needs to play dog-sitter. She waits, eager, and covers her mouth with one of her hands in what she hopes Daisy will assume is worry. Not that it matters, she thinks (as Melanie screams in rage, as Jon screams in pain, as Daisy tenses at her side), whether or not Daisy notices she’s smiling.
There’s only two marks left.
Jon wants to save the world again, he says. Make it better, Sasha amends. Jon laughs. Sasha pretends to be offended, just like Tim would have, when Jon tells her they’re going by boat.
“I can give you two a lift, you know,” She tells him, and he shrugs.
“Basira would rather something more… Stable,” Jon says. Sasha laughs, and it is anything but.
“Alright, I can see when I’m not wanted. I’ll keep an eye out for you, of course.”
“You’re always wanted,” Jon says, and Sasha’s smile does not soften, because nothing about her can ever be anything but harsh, rigid, and geometric.
Jon softens in turn, because what is true and what he believes might be different, and Sasha would never lie to him.
“And thank you. I feel a lot safer knowing you’re always just around the corner.”
(He feeds, on the ride up, even though he said he wouldn’t anymore. He feels guilty about it, both because Jon himself feels bad, and because Basira tells him he should.)
(Sasha will talk to him later. What a pain, those two are, getting Jon on this stupid guilt kick. Don’t they know how fragile glass is? How large the stones they’re trying to throw are? Sasha will be sure to show them one day.)
Sasha is, of course, right around the corner, just as Jon believes. She steps in to save the day, to pull Manuela into her doors, and to offer a freshly-marked Archivist a safe passage home. He can always trust Sasha to protect him, to guide him home. That’s what friends do. She’ll protect him, help him make the world a better place.
Just one mark left.
After reading the statement of Hezekiah Wakely, Jon wanders down to the tunnels, to a stain on the wall which was once the site of Jane Prentiss’s ritual.
Jane, he calls her, when he talks about her. Just like Sasha. Just like Jon.
“She was the first we encountered like us,” Jon says, “Jane seemed to inhuman, then. So other.”
"And now?" Sasha asks.
"Now I know. She wasn't possessed against her will," Jon says, "And neither were we."
“You chose this, just like I did. Even if we didn’t know what we were choosing, at the time,” She tilts her head, and it spins just a smidge further than any human neck could, and then a smidge more. Jon is thinking, and she hums. “I wouldn’t take it back. What I am. If I had to do it again, I’d still choose this.”
“You would?” And Sasha nods again, her head snapping back into place.
“If I didn’t, what would happen to you?” Sasha asks.
Jon doesn’t say anything, apparently finding interest in the stains in the stone below their feet.
“The Eye doesn’t care if you feel guilty or not, you know,” Sasha says, and Jon’s head snaps up. “About me. About you. The Eye doesn't care."
"What about the Spiral?" Jon asks.
"The Spiral doesn't care about guilt, either," Sasha explains, "The guilt won’t ever go away on its own. These things won’t ever take it from you. You have to let it go on your own.”
“Why should I?” Jon asks. Sasha sighs.
“Look at Daisy. She’s chosen guilt, and in that she’s chosen weakness. She’s wasting away, and even if she won’t say it, Basira can’t rely on her like that. She’s letting Basira-- dragging Basira down. She’s an anchor, chained to Basira’s ankle, pulling her under. Daisy's strangling Basira, just like that coffin strangled Daisy,” Sasha explains, “And then look at me. I’ve been able to protect you. I pulled you two back from Ny-Alesund, I helped protect the Institute from the Flesh in your absence. I'm your friend, and you can count on me.”
Jon looks at Sasha, watches Sasha fold her arms.
“Who do you want to be? A coffin? Or a friend?”
When he stands in Martin’s door, eyes wild and knuckles tight on the doorframe, all Martin can think about is how bright his eyes seem. Even when the rest of him is stretched thin over his bones, his eyes shine with rabid intensity, with desperate hunger, with cutting life. Maybe it’s an effect of his patron, or maybe it’s just how Jon is. Martin doesn’t let himself remember which he thinks is more likely.
And then Jon suggests they gouge his eyes out, and Martin’s eyes out, and they run away together. He needs Martin, but Martin can’t go with him, not anymore.
“You died,” Martin tells him, and Jon’s face falls.
“I came back,” Jon says.
“But did you?” Martin asks. “Tim was right, you know. About Sasha. That thing isn’t Sasha James. It’s just what you tell yourself is Sasha so you don’t feel bad she died for you. So I’ve been wondering, are you Jon? Or are you what I’ve been telling myself is Jon, so I don’t have to live knowing he died for me?”
“Martin… I-I’m right here,” Jon insists, but Martin shakes his head.
“We were in the Distortion way back, before Sasha took over. With her. Tim never forgave himself for it, when Sasha showed up. He told me she was in there, that he could have saved her,” Martin says, and he doesn’t reach out, because he can’t, not anymore. “Could I have saved Jon?”
So Jon goes to Sasha.
After all, Jon says, Sasha understands.
"He'll come around," Sasha says, "Once he loses the guilt. He only feels guilty because he loves you, but I did not die, and neither did you. He does not need to feel guilty for not saving Jonathan Sims, because you do not need to feel guilty for not saving Sasha James. He'll realize things change. People change. And there is no use for guilt, anymore."
Jon tells the others how to quit, too, and Melanie takes it. She prepares, and Georgie helps her. The last step is to requisition an awl from the library, and to see Jon one more time. She retreats into another room, somewhere deep in the Archives, where no one can find her and talk her out of it.
Jon calls an ambulance, just like Melanie asks, and he watches the paramedics run into the Archives, and he watches the paramedics carry Melanie away.
He reads another statement once she's gone, and he does not know it is the last time he will ever see her. If he did, he does not know if he would mind. If he didn't, he knows he would not feel guilty.
Melanie sits on Georgie's couch, her hands in the Admiral's fur, and she does not smile. She has done the right thing, she knows, but it was not easy. The price is high, but when Georgie sits next to her, she knows it is worth it. When Georgie throws an arm around her shoulder, she knows it is worth it. When Georgie leans her head against Melanie's, she knows it is worth it.
Maybe Melanie is miserable. She's lost their friends, sunk countless hours of her life into that wretched place. She's seen all the horrors this world has to offer, become, for a time, a horror of her own. She's changed, of course, and maybe she's become worse. But she's changing, still changing, but this change is right.
And Melanie King is not lost.
“Sasha, it’s-- It’s Martin, I need to know. I need to know what’s in the center of the tunnels,” Jon pleads, and Sasha smiles, and it is familiar.
“I don’t know,” She admits.
“You-- You don’t know?” Jon despairs, if only for a moment, before Sasha steps forward. She wraps Jon up in both of her arms, and all the weight distributes in horrible, uncomfortable, uneven bunches.
“Oh, Archivist, ” she sighs, “It’s not a bad thing, to be lost.”
“I don’t have time to be lost! Martin is-- What is the point of power if I lose him?!” Jon asks.
“You won’t,” Sasha assures. “When you need me, we can look together. I’m sure we’ll find him.”
But Sasha does not promise the easiest route, nor does she promise the quickest. Jon calls her when the Institute falls into panic, leaving Basira and Daisy behind, and follows her without a hint of doubt.
And Alice Tonner is lost.
And Martin Blackwood…
"I see you, Jon. I see you."
And Martin Blackwood is found, and no marks are left.
Jon leads Martin out of the Lonely by the hand. Fog curls around both of them as they flee, but it does not dare try to block Jon’s eyes.
Jonathan Sims was not lost, back then. Martin knows it now, now that he’s seen Jon, the brunt of all Jon’s bubbling affections. Jon loves him, and Jon is not lost, and his hand fits in Martin’s like it was meant to be there. And it is scarred, but still warm--Maybe the warmest thing in the entire world, a star burning in Martin’s palm. Is this how Jon felt, when he shook hands with the Lightless Flame?
But no, Jon’s hand doesn’t burn. It doesn’t hurt. It brings feeling back, where Martin has none. Brings feelings back, where Martin’s had been lost.
Jon’s eyes are bright when he looks back to Martin, and the determination in his expression softens into pure adoration, and Martin doesn’t need Jon to lead them home, because he’s already holding it in his hand.
(And later, Martin will think he may have been unfair to Sasha. She helped them, guided Jon to the Lonely. And Martin saw, clear as day, that Jon is Jon. Maybe Tim had been wrong. Maybe Sasha is Sasha, too. Maybe Sasha is their friend.)
(Martin is... Cautiously optimistic.)
(And later, Jon will think of how the path out of the tunnels is much, much quicker than the path in had been. Jon doesn’t acknowledge it, not really. Sasha wouldn’t lie to him.)
(She was lost, too.)
They escape London. They hide in Scotland. They find peace, for a few weeks. Sasha waits.
And the world is lost.
A tape plays under the creaks of a cabin and the groans of the wind. Jon had forgotten what Sasha James had sounded like, without the echoes and the reverberations and the distortions.
“I mean, who knows why we do what we do?”
“All you know is what your brain does to justify what you do.”
“The real you is the actions you take.”
Jon had forgotten what Sasha James sounded like. He puts the tape aside.
Martin and Jon are going to fix the world, to turn the world back.
They pack their bags, and Jon takes Martin’s hand, and they start walking.
“I wanted to come congratulate the happy couple!” Sasha grins, and the angles are perfect, as is everything. “I knew you two would make it work. Not like Tim, he bet against me. You think he’d still have paid me, or would he have said he didn’t owe the Distortion anything?”
“You’re in good spirits,” Martin notes, flat, neutral. Sasha nods.
“Look around us! Don’t you feel it? I know he does.” She gestures to Jon, who nods.
“I-I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel...” Jon trails off, and he coughs, “But we’re going to put a stop to it. We’re going to turn the world back.”
“Oh, trying to change the world again, are we?” Sasha asks. Jon nods again.
“Do you think you could help us? Give us a shortcut?” Jon asks. Sasha hums.
“No, I don’t think so. You’re far too powerful now, I couldn’t take you,” Sasha sighs. She looks to Martin. “I could take you, though. What do you think? Care to face off against Jonah Magnus one-on-one? I bet you could take him!”
“No,” Martin says, after a moment. He looks to Jon beside him. “I'd rather stay with Jon. We can walk just fine.”
"I understand," Sasha coos, "You two are so sweet, you know? I'm really happy for you!"
“Basira, I couldn’t help but overhear your little problem.” Sasha calls, pushing her door open with a flourish. “I can help you with a certain feral runaway, if you’d like.”
“Really?” Jon asks, and Sasha nods.
“What kind of help?” Basira asks.
“A shortcut, of course!” Sasha says, and she knows Basira still ranks her as neutral-to-benign, and Jon nods alongside her.
“I can get you there, but Sasha would probably be faster.” Jon admits, “I’m only able to follow her victims, and I’m sure you don’t want to see that.”
“Of course not! The guilt is only going to slow you down. There isn't any point in wallowing in it.” Sasha says, and she steps aside to allow Basira entry, “Come on, what do you say? One way ticket to one Alice ‘Daisy’ Tonner!”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Martin asks, and Basira shrugs.
“I’ve traveled by her hallways before,” Basira says, “It’s not too bad. I’m sure I’ll be fine. And I really just want to get this over with.”
“If you say so…” Martin mutters, and Jon smiles. It’s soft, compared to Sasha.
“Meet us in London,” He tells her, and she nods, before turning and heading to the door.
Daisy asks Basira to join her. Daisy is happy. There is no guilt, no suffering. All that’s missing is Daisy’s partner.
Miserable and afraid, Daisy asked Basira to kill her.
Ecstatic and unashamed, Daisy asks Basira to join her.
And Basira Hussain is lost.
Jon passes through Sasha’s domain alone. It’s pleasant enough. A nice rest, some time to catch up with dear, old Sasha.
“Be honest,” She says, “Do you think you can change the world back?”
“I don’t know,” Jon admits, “But Martin--”
“Doesn’t understand,” Sasha says, “He can’t see what a wonderful thing you’ve built. He’s so hung up on good and evil and avatar and victim… But you and I know it’s not that simple, is it?”
“No, it’s not,” Jon says.
“The world is ours, now that it’s changed, and it’s always going to be this. It cannot change back! If you just accept it--Accept your work, yourself--and aren’t so hung up on silly little things like guilt… Well, you already know all that. Look around you! Look at Daisy and Basira! They’re happy together, playing in the world you’ve made!” Sasha says, and she forces sympathy into her voice, “And Look at Martin. He can’t accept it, and Look at how miserable he is.”
“I don’t want him to be miserable,” Jon insists, and Sasha nods.
“That’s okay, of course. He's important to you, just like you are to me. I don't want you to be miserable, either," Sasha says, and how many people have told Jon that? "Not like Martin does. He wants to be your anchor, to drag you down and mire you in guilt and shame. He thinks it will keep you human, but what has being human ever done for you? For him?"
"It's just made him unhappy," Jon says, and his voice is soft, his conviction fragile.
"But he can be happy in this world, because you made it. We always said you were going to change the world, make it better. That's all you ever wanted to do, right? To help?" Sasha asks.
"I just wanted to help," Jon echoes.
"And you have! He's safe here. Basira and Daisy are happier than they've ever been. And you, I know you haven't felt this good in years. Maybe decades! And you know, I haven't stopped smiling!" Sasha says, and it is not a lie. She has not stopped smiling since she became Sasha. Not for Jon, at least, but who else matters in this world? "So we’ll bring Martin around. I know you can make him happy, just like you've done for all of us. I know you can wear him down!”
She winks, and Jon swallows, and he does not know if he tastes guilt or not.
“I mean, Look at me. I'm your friend. You know you can trust me,” Sasha says, “Would I lie to you?”
And Jon meets her eyes, and looks at her smile. The angles are wrong. It is cold, and cruel, and there is not any warmth in it at all, but it is familiar. It is the most familiar smile in the world to Jon, the one he’s come to rely on, the smile of his closest friend. He smiles back.
"Of course not," Jon says, "You're my friend."
And Jonathan Sims is lost.
Sasha sends him on his way with a wave and a smile.