WHERE Jon's apartment •
WHEN After this •
WHAT A confrontation and clearing some things up •
STATUS Complete •
WARNINGS Existential horror, discussions of just so much trauma, death, violence, gaslighting and just...lots of not great things
Jon sat on the floor of the living room of his and Georgie's flat, listening to the tapes. Georgie was out, having agreed to give him a little space to deal with his emotions, and Iris was curled up on his lap purring in a way that was more soothing than it had any right to be. The box had contained, among other things, a few of Martin's sweaters, and he had one wrapped around him. August wasn't exactly sweater weather, but he'd turned up the aircon enough that it wasn't uncomfortable. He missed Martin terribly, and the sweater - warm and smelling like him - helped to ease the ache.
Tim's voice rang out through the tape recorder, punctuated by Sasha's laughter and interjections and he had to fight against the tightness in his chest. He couldn't remember Sasha, not the real one, but the sound of her voice still sent a pang through him.
What if we kill him?
No. Big Boss Sims. Cut the brakes on his office chair; no one would ever know.
Swap in a poisoned tea bag, pin it on Martin...the perfect crime.
And how do you know that you won't be the one that gets it? That boy makes a lot of tea.
No, it's okay; I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.
He sighed, setting down the tape recorder as it continued to play and pressing his hands against his stinging eyes. Iris gave an irritated chirp as he stopped petting her, but just nudged her head against his sternum.
Well, tell you what. If you get eaten alive by improperly filed statements, me and Martin will avenge you.
Well, aren't you sweet.
I mean it! We'll burn this place to the ground, it'll be all like SASHA! SAASHAAAAA!
And what about Jon?
Well, given the incoherence of this statement, I find it hard to believe it ever occurred.
In fact, based on the evidence, I find it highly unlikely that Sasha ever even existed at all.
No. You took it too far! I'm unforgettable!
Alright. He fires you because of all the drugs and the wild orgies on Archive property.
Yeah, that's fair. Now, get back to work.
Yes, ma'am! See? Told you you'd make a good boss.
He choked back a sob, knowing all too well that Sasha hadn't, in the end, been unforgettable. They'd forgotten her all too easily. He picked up the tape again, rewinding it and letting it play again.
-the values of our esteemed founder, Jimmy Magma. Jonie...Magnum?
That's the one.
Tim wasn't sure how to handle all of this. It seemed all too simple but complicated at the same time, a blessing of freedom at the expense of being divorced from anything and everything he'd ever known. Except Jon. Tim wasn't sure whether it was an irony or just to be expected that the entire time he'd been panicked and fearful back home of not being able to trust who or what anyone around him was, Jon had been the only one he could have been sure was who he was, and here, it seemed to be the same thing. And if it had been a few months earlier, before Sasha and Leitner and all of the murders and accusations and isolation, Tim would have been thankful for it. But now… Now.
Now the anger in him from everything seemed to be rolling in waves, hitting him in spurts and sprays as he struggled to sort out this new reality from the one he'd left behind. This didn't change anything. Right? Except he wasn't dead. And there were no forces keeping them locked down to a job he couldn't leave and a master he couldn't kill. And it was just him and Jon.
For all the stories he'd heard, and he'd certainly heard plenty when they'd been in research, she was even more supportive and patient that he'd assumed she'd be. And that was probably what had left him tracking down where to go, thinking that perhaps a face to face conversation would allow him to get the mess that was roiling around in his head somewhat straight.
Of course, the last thing he'd expected to hear upon approaching the door was his own voice so while he'd fully intended on knocking when he'd first decided to come, that went out the window in a spurt of panic as he opened the door and stepped fully inside.
But no. It was no doppelganger or long face stealing demon that had snatched his voice. It was Jon. Jon, sitting on the floor wrapped up in one of Martin's godawful sweaters with a cat and one of those fucking tape recorders, looking very much like he was about to cry.
"So. This is what you do in your spare time? Listen to tapes and weep?" Tim drawled, trying to ignore the uncomfortable prick of empathy that wormed its way in between his anger. "You've got to get better hobbies, Jon."
Jon startled at Tim's sudden appearance in the flat, not sure how to process this. Iris made a quiet, rumbling growl, as if sensing his mood, before climbing up and settling herself across his shoulders like a scarf. The comforting weight caused him to sigh, a bit of the tension easing out of him.
"I..." he hesitated. "They just showed up. Apparently things do that sometimes. Here. And...I'd forgotten her voice." Sasha. Her absence was like a chasm between them. "I just...I'm trying to remember her." He wished he could say more but it was all he had.
Tim wanted to be angry. He did. There was a primal, furious, damaged part of him that wanted to cling to his rage forever, to hold onto the fact that Jon had so fervently and paranoidly pushed him away for a year and then thrown him over for a handful of new recruits, that he'd seemingly not cared or asked or even considered what Tim had been going through after… after… all of it. But the crisp laughter crinkling out of the tape recorder in front of Jon that was a voice that seemed so familiar and yet so distant at the same time just washed any and all energy to argue out of Tim for the moment.
"You still need to get a better hobby," Tim repeated, less droll sarcasm in the words this time as he closed the door to the flat behind him. This was entirely not the situation he'd anticipated walking into. But, maybe, it was the one that he needed to see. Because looking at Jon sitting there, eyes red and puffy with unshed tears, Martin's sweater tenting his much less filled out frame, and a bloody cat wrapped around him like a goddamned life preserver, it was hard to think of him as anything but Jon Sims, his hopeless wreck of a friend, rather than Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute, as he so pedantically droned onto his recordings.
Sitting down delicately next to Jon, being extra careful not to move too quickly or too suddenly lest he spook the guard cat, Tim frowned to himself as he listened to the rest of the tape roll back over.
"Wait. I remember this conversation," Tim said, wincing briefly as the memory tried to surface in his mind, warring amongst itself. This was… nicer, more playful than his memory was telling him it was, had been. There was less irritation and… dismissiveness in the voice on the tape than the one in his mind, an air that the body language his synapses were conjuring just didn't convey. "But… it's not…" It's not right. It wasn't right. Just like everything with Sasha, everything with that person who was her but not. And Tim couldn't help but slump his shoulders in defeat. "When do you think it happened?" Tim asked, a heaviness in the words. "Because even when I try to… Everything. It's all that thing and not... You'd think killing it should have given us the truth back. Should have..."
Jon curled in on himself as Tim settled next to him, anticipating...he wasn't entirely sure what. Harsh words or judgment or violence. That had been so much of his life lately. Sometimes he wished he had never crawled out of the Buried. Never woken from his coma. Just faded into the End's embrace. Sure, Elias might have moved on to someone else but it would have been harder. With the Circus gone and Not!Sasha gone, it would have been so much harder to mark someone with the Stranger. It would have taken time and would have freed the people he cared about most. It would have been something. Anything was better than what he had led them too.
Iris continued her rumbling purr, pausing only to crack open and eye and stare at Tim, letting out a crackling noise that sounded entirely unlike a cat before settling back down, her tail twitching idly.
"When Prentiss attacked," John replied numbly, staring at the floor as Elias's words played in his head. "When Sasha and Elias were separated. That's when. Apparently...that thing being around...it made...he said it fed into paranoia. A feeling of wrongness..." He trailed off. "I'm not making an excuse. I know I was a bastard. But I just...I could feel something wrong and...it's still my own fault." He swallowed heavily.
"She's...gone," he said. "Sasha is...she's gone. There's no...there isn't any getting her back. Not even the truth of her."
He probably fed her to it. Those were the words that instantly jumped into Tim's brain. Elias knew, anticipated, so he had to have known what was going to happen to Sasha if she'd been left alone, if he'd walked away and left her to fend for herself. It was risky enough with just Prentiss running around there. They'd all barely made it out with their lives. But Elias.
"He knew," Tim ground out, the darkness and anger leaching into his voice barely covering the way it cracked with emotion. "He knew, and he just let us go on…" Tim trailed off, fists balling in his lap as he glanced up at Jon, exhaling the anger at the other man's posture. Even as indignation soared in him at the sheer idea that Jon thought he'd stoop so low as to hit him, Tim couldn't help the way the direct rage kept waning in the face of his friend's reactions.
"You could have just talked to us," Tim said, the strained ‘you could have just talked to me' that he wanted to scream not making its way to his lips. "Instead of acting like we were all plotting your murder. I doubt even that… thing was. Just wanted you to think it."
Just wanted him to think it… so he'd be suspicious of all of them. Fuck. Had it really started that early? The pushing and manipulating and trying to get them to all hate and loathe and distrust each other so badly that they wouldn't be able to get anything together in time to…
"It wasn't your fault," Tim said, his voice strained. "Don't get me wrong. You were a blind, hateful, oblivious ass who did a ton of things wrong. But Sa-sha," Tim paused, biting his lower lip and squeezing his eyes shut for a moment as he tried to pretend like his voice just hadn't cracked, like he wasn't about to absolutely lose it. "Sasha wasn't your fault. And besides. I made assumptions, too. I mean, it did seem out of character for you to bash someone's head in with a lead pipe. But I didn't think twice about it being your fault."
How could he explain it? How could he explain the mess that was inside of his head? How could he explain the way he'd felt back then so that Tim would understand. "He...yes," he said. "He knew the entire time and he was...playing a game and..." He sighed. "Look, I'm sorry, Tim. I'm sorry I didn't come to you or tell you what was going on. I was...scared." Because he'd told Martin, but he'd never actually told Tim. "Everything was just...becoming too real and...I didn't want to face it."
He sighed. "I was never as skeptical as I made it out to be. I couldn't be...not with everything as it was. I knew some of the statements were real. I could feel it when I read them...and even before that..." He didn't want to think about the Leitner he'd encountered as a child. "But acknowledging it...it made it seem worse somehow. Like it would bring all of it that much closer. And I...couldn't bear it."
"And then...Jane Prentiss happened," he said. "And I couldn't hide from it any more. We almost died. You almost died because I dragged you into the archives. And then Martin found Gertrude and...I knew it was dangerous. And yes, I entertained the idea that it could have been anyone. But I dismissed you pretty much immediately. I just...I didn't want to involve you because I didn't want you in more danger. And I kept an eye because...I thought I could keep you safe. And I just...knew something was wrong and it was driving me mental and I...I handled it very badly. I know that."
Then Tim said those four words. It wasn't your fault. Jon took a shaky breath, staring down at his hands and shaking his head. "But it was," he said. "I was supposed to keep her safe. I was supposed to keep all of you safe. And I failed. I failed all of you. It just...it all went so wrong. First Sasha...then you...then after I woke up everything was different and it all...it all went to shit."
"It didn't feel like you were protecting me," Tim half mumbled, staring at his hands to avoid having to look Jon in the eye. Because that was just it, really. It had hurt. Him perhaps more than any of the others, even Martin whose doe-eyed crush had been damned obvious once Tim had wrapped his head around moony-eyed Martin actually having a crush on one of their department. Because even as Martin had pined from afar and taken Jon's shift in attitude personally, Tim had actually counted Jon as a friend, one of his few actual friends, who weren't just hangers-on at parties or barflies that gravitated towards him when he was out on the town. And in an instant, it had just all gone from sixty to zero. Or rather, from sixty to negative sixty to zero given the rapidness and severity of the shifts.
"It felt like you going from being suspicious of me because you were being a fucking paranoid mess to just… not trusting me with anything. And then Basira went from your hush-hush daytime fling to someone you were essentially asking to do my job. Because why? I wasn't reliable enough? I couldn't be trusted with what was going on? Fuck, Jon. If I hadn't run into Martin when he was looking for that fucking calliope, I wouldn't have had a goddamn clue what was going on. And what would have happened then? You guys would have gone in there blind, one man down, and you'd probably have been skinned and mounted with the rest of their goddamn dolls before you could get anything done."
Bitterness, exhaustion, and just plain hurt were raw in Tim's voice as he looked up at Jon, pinning him with a hard gaze, "Woke up when? How? And do not try and ignore me this time, Jonathan Sims, because I am sitting right in front of you, and you know full well that I will put you in a headlock for information if I really want it."
Jon knew he had screwed it all up. He wasn't an idiot, contrary to apparent popular opinion. Tim had, perhaps, been his best friend. They'd spent years together in Research and he had been his usual taciturn self, but Tim had barrelled through that and dragged him into a friendship that had meant everything to him. He and Georgie had still been at odds then and Tim had been the only real friend he had in those days. It was why he'd asked him to come to the archives with him. Because he'd been woefully out of his depth, taking a job he was unqualified for, and he'd wanted a friend. Sasha he'd brought because it should have been her job in the first place and if she couldn't have it, at least he could ensure a £3 raise. And, as essential as Martin was to him now, he'd been foisted on him in those early days. But Tim had been his friend.
Until he hadn't been.
"Basira was never a fling!" he said, unable to help the way his skin crawled at the thought. "I'm not...I never...she was investigating me for Gertrude's murder and slipping me tapes for Gertrude. She was my police contact. I didn't want her around you all because I didn't want her getting too close to any of you. I may have been paranoid but I didn't want you all getting dragged into anything." He curled in on himself more. "I...I don't know why I kept you out of it so much, I just..." He really didn't know. Tim had just seemed so angry with him that he hadn't wanted to push things. "It wasn't that I didn't trust you. I just...I was so sure you hated me and I..."
And then Tim was asking the question he didn't want to answer, because it led to so many things he didn't want to say or acknowledge or deal with. But Tim was right. He couldn't run away from it with Tim right there. "I woke up...six months after the explosion," he said haltingly. "I think...I probably died somewhere in there but it didn't quite take. Marked by the End. Another talley on Elias's bloody checklist. I woke up and you were dead and Daisy was...gone. Melanie was so angry and Basira didn't think I was...well, she didn't trust me and I hardly blame her. Martin was...Martin pulled away completely. And I just...there was no one. And it just...it was hard. We...I eventually got Daisy back from the Buried, went into the coffin and got her out...but it just...I felt like I was losing myself and there was nobody there."
And then Tim was allowing himself a wry little smile in the face of Jon's panic, idly moving a little bit closer to him and leaning over with a conspiratorial whisper, "I know," he said, a bit of a glint in his eye. Oh, he'd thought that it was possible. For maybe thirty seconds, before he'd glimpsed Jon's face of abject horror at the suggestion and listened to him frantically try to course correct as he shut the door behind him. And then, well. It was just a matter of enjoying riling him up whenever Basira was around with a bit of a grin or a wink. At least, it had been, until she'd weaseled her way deeper and deeper into things, and it had become less of a joke to Tim than it had been an irritation. That. And a lot of his sincere playfulness when it came to their work had died right along with Sasha.
"And I didn't hate you, Jon. I was pissed at you, yes. Pissed and frustrated and hurt, but fucking hell. The only person I hated in the end was Elias. You. You there was just too much unsaid to fix anything," Tim said, sighing to himself. That and he hadn't wanted to. He'd wanted to hold onto his grudge and pain and coil it around himself as protection against everything the world had been throwing at him then. But now. Well. It just seemed like an extra weight to carry.
As Jon explained, though, all of those thoughts were pushed momentarily by the wayside as he tried to comprehend what he was being told. "So. You died. And that was part of the plan?" Tim questioned, a heavy frown seeping into his features. "You died and came back. And everyone was just… Gone?"
He could have addressed the rest of it, and he would, but Tim's last questions seemed to be the most important. "I..." he struggled to find the right words, "I mean...they...it was..." He stopped, taking a deep breath, his gaze falling to the tape recorder in his hand. Wordlessly, he popped out the tape. There was a blank one, though he could hardly say where it came from, and he put it in. The tape recorder turned on. Right then.
"Statement..." He hesitated, just a moment. Just a slight stutter of breath. Maybe this would be too much. Maybe this would be what reminded Tim that he was a monster. But it was the only way he would get through this. "Statement of the Archivist," he said, tone going impossibly even and gaze going distant even as his hands trembled, "concerning a series of events culminating in the end of the world. Statement taken direct from subject. August 14, 2020. Statement begins."
Tim's initial reaction was a spark of irritation. He was really going to do this now? When they had been talking perfectly fine with no issues, he was going to bury his head into that bloody tape recorder and ignore the world like he always fucking did? Tim had been gritting his teeth, fists balling at his sides in preparation to try and wipe that zoned out, pragmatic, and all too eerily calm look from his face when his words pulled Tim up short.
"Jon," Tim started, the concern evident in his voice. "What?"
"I remember dreaming," he said, completely unaware of Tim as he spoke, lost in the haze of a Statement. It was simpler this way. "Or...I don't know that remember is quite the right word for it. I spent a long time in a strange state that was not quite consciousness. I wasn't breathing, or so they told me. And my heart wasn't beating. If it wasn't for the brain activity they would have thought I was dead. I mean...I suppose I was. Clinically dead. I dreamed of the ones who gave their Statements directly. Or rather...they dreamed. And I watched. All I could do was watch as they lived through those horrors again and again. And then I woke up. And it was six months after the Unknowing. You were dead, or so they told me. And Daisy was gone. Not dead. I knew she wasn't dead because I still saw her when I dreamed. But she was gone and we didn't know where she was. Georgie-" His breath hitched slightly, a crack in the calm recitation. "Georgie couldn't stand to be around me. Apparently you're not supposed to wake up from a coma after so long and walk away from it like nothing happened. I don't...I can't really blame her. We're better now, but back then..."
"Things were different. The Flesh had attacked the Archive while I was in that state. It shook Melanie and Basira up. Melanie was so angry and Basira...well...she didn't really believe that whatever woke up was me. Melanie kept away from me unless it was to threaten me. Or...sometimes to throw things at me. And Basira worked with me when she had to, but she had other priorities. And Martin..." God. Martin. It still hurt to think about. He went painfully quiet, grief etched across his face. Even the lull of a statement couldn't dim the remembered pain of how Martin had cut him off back then. "Elias was in jail and Peter Lukas had stepped in as Interim Head of the Institute. Martin had become his assistant and seemed quite content to give in to the Lonely. Or...if nothing else, he didn't want to see me."
"I tried," he said. "I did. I tried to carry on. But...it was difficult without anyone around. Especially when I realized that they had been right. I wasn't quite human any more. Not really. I needed the Statements. It was like a compulsion. But also like...a need. If I didn't...it was like wasting away. I tried to keep to the written ones. I did. But they were so...stale. Weaker. They didn't quite sate the hunger. I went out and found people who had Statements to tell. And I took them. I wanted to tell someone...but there wasn't anyone to tell."
Tim wasn't sure he wanted to hear this, wasn't sure he was ready to hear this. But he had asked. He'd asked, and Jon had deemed to answer his question, frankly and thoroughly, and after the vast chasm of nothingness that had been the majority of the past year for him, he wasn't inclined to not listen.
He hadn't really considered the repercussions of what they'd done. He hadn't had to. It had been a spur of the moment decision, a realization that if he didn't press the detonator now, it likely wouldn't get pressed at all. And while he hadn't entirely been overly concerned about whether or not he'd made it out when he'd done it, he also hadn't given a thought to the others when he had. They'd all gone into this knowing there was a chance they wouldn't come out.
Maybe he should be glad he had died. Because he wouldn't have known how to handle the atmosphere Jon was describing. He'd barely been able to handle the one they had had before.
"I should explain that the Eye was not the first entity to mark me," he said. "That was when I was a child. Eight years old, to be precise. The Web found me first. A Leitner my grandmother gave me without knowing its significance. My leg never fully recovered from my encounter with Mr. Spider. That was why Elias chose me to be the Archivist. I came to him already marked by one of the Fears. It made it that much easier for him. Reading the Statements bound me to the Eye and marked me again. And then Jane Prentiss and her worms. Elias could have set off the gas system at any time but he wanted the Corruption to mark me so he waited. And then he let Not!Sasha remain in the Archives in the hopes of marking me for the Stranger. Not that he needed to. The Unknowing eventually did that for it and for The End, when I died but didn't. But the presence of it made me paranoid and unsettled and made me an easy target for other Entities. Michael marked me for the Spiral when he stabbed me or perhaps when I passed through those corridors. Michael Crew marked me for the Vast when I got his statement. Jude Perry marked me for the Desolation when she burned my hand, of course. And then Daisy marked me for the Hunt when she tried to kill me. All told, I was already marked by nine of the Fears by the time I woke up. Just like Elias wanted."
He took a deep breath. "Melanie was infected with the Slaughter. I could see it clear as day. The ghost bullet from her trip to India was pumping violence and hatred into her but nobody knew because nobody could see the bullet. I could. So I did what I thought I had to...in order to save her. I removed it. She was when she woke up...stabbed me with a scalpel...and that was a mark for the Slaughter. Then I found where Daisy was. The coffin. I couldn't leave her there...not when it was my fault she was there in the first place. Not when she was the only one who could possibly understand what it was to feel a hunger you can't control. To go after her, I needed something to anchor me to the world. I tried cutting off a finger...but I healed too quickly. So I went to Jared Hopworth...the Boneturner. He took one of my ribs out for me...and another for himself. That was the Flesh done. And then I walked into that coffin. I found Daisy, but we couldn't find our way out. Not until I'd been marked by the Buried. Eventually though, we got out. We were closer after that...as much as either of us could be, brittle as we were. And that was three more."
"Elias told Basira about a ritual for the Dark," he said. "And we went to stop it. I looked into their Dark Sun of Ny-Ålesund and was marked. Then the others found out about the Statements...that I was becoming a monster. Basira told me I was. That I was a danger. I always wondered that she could say that when she had enabled Daisy's hunger for so long. That she continued to encourage her to feed the Hunt while assuring me she would kill me if I continued to feed on people's fear. At least mine don't die. I hate it. I do. But I don't know that I'm capable of stopping it now." He took a shaky breath, his voice cracking on the next words, the only break in his calm and measured retelling of two years of horrors. "I've been terrified so many times in the past two years...and I don't know that I ever felt so abjectly helpless as I did when Daisy took me to the woods to kill me. I don't know that I can ever forgive her for that...but I also know that she would never ask. And I don't think I'll ever be able to forgive Basira for treating me like a monster while enabling the things that Daisy does. Did. I know she was trying to be better, I know that, but I can't…"
It was a lot, too much, and Tim's heart screamed at him to make it stop even as he could tell that that wasn't all, that there was more. Because Jon had said he ended the world. And as far as Tim could tell, the world was still intact, still whole, even if it had been shattering left, right, and center for the man sitting in front of him through all of this.
There had been a spoke of rage in him, a protective edge that had questioned how he hadn't been able tell that Jon had been dragged into the woods and nearly murdered, how he'd let the people who had tried to do it linger so long. Tim knew he hadn't trusted Basira or Daisy any further than he could throw them when they'd been dragged into things and now he felt absolutely vindicated in that product of paranoia. Not that Jon was speaking about either of them with an ounce of malice, but that was certainly what Tim was feeling in his heart.
Tim wasn't even conscious of it at first, the fact that he'd reached out to settle a hand on Jon's arm, that he had moved closer to him, pushed himself rather fully into his space. Tim wasn't sure whether he'd done it for Jon's comfort or for his own, for some sort of stabilization and grounding against the anger that had threatened to overwhelm him again. But this time, on Jon's behalf. But he figured at the end of this, that wouldn't really matter.
"I wanted something...anything to stop being a monster. I didn't want to be this thing. And then I found the Statement. One I didn't want to read. One the Eye tried to stop me from reading. But I read it and I found a way. Simple really, when you think about it. You can't serve the Beholding if you can't see. I wish I'd found it when you were still...I wish I could have given you a way out. I went to..." That grief again, the deep and abiding ache. "I went to Martin. Told him and asked him...it was so stupid. I asked him to leave with me. To...run away together. He told me that he couldn't. That I had only asked him so that he would stop me from going through with it. But I would have done it. I was stupid. I was so tied to the Eye that it likely would have killed me. But I would have. Even if it did kill me. So long as he was there. I was...I was going to tell him...before we left for the House of Wax...but it seemed selfish to burden him with my feelings when we might die stopping the Beholding. And then everything was different and he was so distant. And I...I couldn't...Melanie did, in the end. Gouged her eyes out to free herself from the Eye and the Archives and all of it."
"And then I found out why Martin was working with Peter Lukas. Peter had convinced him there was a fifteenth Fear emerging. The Extinction. That it was a greater threat than anything. And Martin wanted to stop it. And maybe it was coming to be. But that wasn't what it was truly about at all. There was one mark left, after all. One more Fear. One more Entity. You'd think it would have been easy for the Lonely with all that isolation. But it didn't mark me until Peter Lukas sent Martin into the depths of the Lonely itself and I threw myself in after him. I couldn't...I couldn't lose him too. I couldn't...I couldn't lose Martin. Not him. I killed Peter Lukas. He suffered and he died and I would do it again and again and again. Because he tried to take Martin. And...I don't think I would have survived that. Even knowing what came after...I still would have done it. I don't have it in me to live a life without him anymore."
"We left the Institute after that," he said. "Went to Scotland, to a safehouse of Daisy's. Basira brought me statements every so often. But mostly it was just me and Martin. And some very good cows. It was peaceful. Almost a month of peace and quiet and rest. Until the statement from Jonah Magnus showed up. I didn't realize what it was until I was already reading it. And then...I couldn't stop reading. Jonah had always wanted immortality at the cost of all else. He would be king of a ruined world so long as he could escape death forever. He tried to do a ritual to bring about the Beholding but it had failed. And Jonah realized eventually that all the rituals would fail. Because you can't bring one Entity into the world without the others. A world of only the Buried would collapse on itself. It could never truly exist. He needed a ritual that would bring them all in. A ritual tied into the Eye. And for that he needed someone who was touched by all the Entities. A living record of fear. An Archive. And so he carried on...Jonah Magnus became a string of people who became Richard Mendelson who became James Wright who became...Elias Bouchard. And then Elias Bouchard got an Archivist already marked. And marked again and again. And then all that was left was to read a simple statement and the ritual contained within. And with that, all the Entities were released upon the world and everything as we knew it ended. Because I ended the world. Because I am the monster you all thought that I was. Statement ends."
Silence. That was what fell between the two of them, filled only by the idle hiss of the tape recorder still rolling, marking down empty static onto the space after Jon had declared himself done. And Tim was frozen, still, as he tried to take it all in, process what had just happened, and while his mind would certainly parse the rest of it eventually, once it had the time and the space to do so, the only thing that stuck in his ears was Jon's last few words.
"You fucking dumbass," Tim declared, the words pointed and sharp, as he leaned forward and tugged Jon into an embrace, ignoring the loud cat protests at being knocked from her perch. He should have been angry. No. No, that wasn't right. He was angry. He was enraged. But it wasn't at Jon. No. His target was someone more distant, more removed from their current situation. With several tinier, less immediate targets in the mix. Because they'd all played right into his hand. They'd all done exactly what he'd fucking wanted and didn't even goddamn realize it until it was too late.
If they'd even realized it then.
Not that Tim could really say anything. Because what else had he done except play exactly into Elias fucking Bouchard's hand by getting himself blown up.
"You are the dumbest smart person I have ever met."
It took Jon a moment to come back to himself after the Statement. It had taken a lot out of him and he felt wrung out. He registered Tim moving closer, not really taking in the words beyond their sharp tone, and flinched, bracing himself for whatever was coming. Part of him knew that Tim wouldn't actually hit him, that even at his angriest Tim had never physically hurt him, but everything had been so much that he couldn't quite help the reaction.
Except then Tim was pulling him into a hug, of all things, and he froze completely before sagging into it with a shuddering exhale that broke off into a sob. His hands fisted in Tim's shirt and he buried his face against his chest, letting out months of complicated and painful emotions. Fear and anger and loneliness and grief. Things he'd never been able to properly process because there had been so much to do and nobody on whom he could rely and there had never been the time or space for him to fall apart. He wasn't sure why Tim was allowing it. He'd destroyed the world. Tim should be furious with him. But he was weak and selfish and he wouldn't reject the offered comfort.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled over and over. "I'm so sorry, Tim. I'm sorry."
"Sssshhh, ssssshhh," Tim replied to the torrent of apologies, his hand circling over Jon's back as his friend broke, shattered in a way that was so antithetical to Jon's usually controlled, tempered demeanor that it likely would have been a startling sight for anyone who hadn't known him long, any one of those others that had been slotted into the Institute after him and Martin, who hadn't had the benefit of seeing the mask fall in both positive and negative ways. And honestly, Tim wasn't sure which of those two this was. Perhaps a bit of both, the way the weight seemed to be seeping off of Jon's shoulders, the tension in him starting to ebb away, the longer that Tim held on. "You're not the one that has to apologize, Jon. I'm sorry. For giving up and leaving you vulnerable. I should have realized… If I'd just been less angry about everything, I would have realized."
But he'd been angry. He'd been angry and desperate and allowed himself to get gaslighted and manipulated right into fulfilling the situation just the way that he'd needed to. After all, if they'd set the charges and run like they had first planned, made it back out the other side to tell the tale, well, that would have been a victory for them. And Elias Bouchard didn't let anyone else win.
"And don't ever say you're a monster again, Jon," Tim half muttered, leaning down to press his forehead against the top of Jon's head. "The only thing you are is damaged. And I'm sure if any of the rest of us ended up being put through the wringer to the same degree, we'd all end up the same."
It had been two years of slowly coming apart at the seams and Jon was exhausted. He'd tried so hard to keep up a calm front even as the world seemed to be falling down around his ears, but he just couldn't do it anymore. He'd been cracking into pieces and holding it all together with sellotape and a lack of other options and now all of it had crumbled. The weight of it all was so much and he was so very tired of being strong. Of weathering all of it. The fear and hatred and disdain and loneliness and guilt and grief and loss of control. The complete lack of support from the others. Even the good things. Martin and his love and how much he missed him now. How hard it had been to get there. How terrified he was of fucking it all up.
He let go of all of it in painful, heaving sobs, a breakdown that had been building perhaps since that first day when Rosie had shown him his desk and the mess of the archives and he'd realized how very underqualified he was. He should have walked away then. Should have seen that he was in so far over his head. And he'd just spent years drowning in all of it. Tim's apology felt like his ribs were cracking open, exposing all of the painful parts of him and leaving all of the emotions he'd bottled so deeply to spill out. He wanted to reassure him, to tell him that it hadn't been his fault and that he had nothing to apologize for. That he had every right to be angry. But he couldn't force the words out past the deluge of emotions.
He couldn't say how long it was before he finally finished breaking down, feeling horribly rung out in the aftermath. The comfort and the support was almost too much when he felt so brittle, but he forced himself not to pull away. He didn't want Tim to think he'd done anything wrong by giving him the first real comfort he'd had in far too long. Still, he tried to put himself back together, rebuilding his armor. "I...I'm sorry," he said. "That was...you shouldn't have had to...thank you, Tim, for...tolerating my...outburst."
"Nope. We're not going to do that," Tim said, reaching down to wipe the tears off of Jon's face even as he continued to cradle him with his other arm. "You are not just going to bottle yourself right back up on me and try to pretend like your emotions are some sort of inconvenience to other people that need to be controlled." Tim's tone was firm yet gentle, supportive even with that undercurrent of frustration. Because wasn't that part of what had caused the issues in the first place? Jon not being willing to communicate his feelings when they had become overwhelming, bottling them up and expressing them in paranoia and stalking and other… less than acceptable forms of dealing? Not that Tim was going to focus on that. No. There was time to deal with his hurt feelings later. Right now, Jon needed him far more than his trust and abandonment issues needed to be salved.
"There's nothing for me to tolerate, Jon," Tim said, his words more gentle as he raised a hand to rake through Jon's hair, quietly assessing the sheer length that had been added to it since the last time he'd sat with him like this, since the last time… they'd had any reason to be this close before. "You only tolerate things you don't like or care for. And despite how you might feel… or my most recent behavior, I am quite fond of you. Always have been," Tim said, punctuating the words with a squeeze of Jon's shoulder. "So, you're allowed to fall apart. You always were. Fuck. I wish you had."
Tim's last words were quiet, mostly a pleading to himself. If Jon had just crumbled after Prentiss instead of remaining stubbornly resistant to any of Tim's attempts to get him to talk, to say what he was going through, to vocalize why he seemed to hate them all so much now. If he'd just stuck around instead of fleeing after Leitner showed up dead, if he'd stayed to make his case, or if he'd… Fuck. There were too many ‘what ifs' to consider, too many dominoes to reset to actually put things right, all of them far too dependent on times that had long since passed.
Much better to focus on the now.
"What else is even in here, anyways?" Tim asked, reaching out with his free hand to snag the box and pull it over to him, quietly rooting through the various tape cases and sweaters (probably left over from when Martin had been sleeping in the archives) before pulling out a pristinely white piece of… bone? It had to be bone. Tim had worked on enough archaeological sites during his grad school days to know bone when he saw it. But what in the hell was Jon doing with it? "You knick this from artifact storage?" Tim asked, a slight furrow to his brow. "I thought magpie senses only went after shiny things."
Jon had never been good at leaning on other people. One of the perils of growing up without much in the way of support. One of the perils of being a gifted and self-sufficient child. One of the perils of being so deeply and utterly lonely for so long that it had become ingrained in him. He'd learned very young that the only person he could really rely on was himself. And those lessons were not easy to unlearn, even when he desperately needed support. It wasn't all of it, of course. He'd also been trying to keep the others out of it, as misguided as that had been. Tim especially, because Tim was his closest friend. He'd wanted to protect him, and keep him away from the horrors, and all he had done was leave him feeling abandoned and unwanted. All he'd done was drive him to an awful death.
"I'm sorry," he said, quiet and fragile, the words breathed out in a sigh as he leaned into the touch of Tim's hand in his hair. "I'm sorry...I should have...I know I should have...I knew that I could trust you. Out of everyone, I could trust you. I was just such a mess and I thought...I knew something was deeply, horribly wrong and people were dying and it was all such a mess. And I thought that if I kept you away from it...it might keep you safe. That if nothing else, maybe I could keep you safe. Even if you hated me for it. Not that it worked. All I did was get you killed. And I'm so sorry I did everything wrong. But I'm so glad you're here. I've missed you. I've missed you so terribly."
He curled into Tim, closing his eyes and just letting the tension seep out of him. It had been so long since he had really been able to relax and he was so very tired. The remembered pain and fear had taken a lot out of him and he just wanted to sit with his friend and have a moment of quiet.
Of course, it was broken by Tim's question. Jon cracked open an eye, wincing as he realized what Tim was holding. Well, it was hardly as though he could make things more awkward than they already were. He was reasonably certain they had reached that threshold. "That..." he said haltingly. "Ah...that would be my...um...that is to say...remember how I mentioned losing a rib? Or two? To...um...Jared Hopworth?"
"Hey, no more apologies, okay?" Tim said, the words gentle as he tucked Jon against his side, fingers threading through his hair. There was a lot that they had left unsaid, a lot that hadn't been addressed, and looking at it now, Tim couldn't help but feel bad that it had been a sheer lack of communication that had made things break down so severely between them, that had caused his hurt and frustration to sour into bitterness and anger. But at the same time, he couldn't very well let Jon take all of the blame onto himself. After all, he was the one that had run away after he and Martin had been sucked into the Distortion, after Leitner and the accusations, after Jon had disappeared and the only assumption left to make was that he'd actually been responsible for all it. Tim was the one that had been avoiding them all and who had realized months too late for it to be any good that even with as angry and hurt and paranoid as he'd become towards everyone else, Jon was and had still been Jon, had still been the infuriating, frustrating man that he'd known for years and had cared about for nearly as long. Maybe if they'd had more time…. He'd been trying, after all. Tim just hadn't wanted to hear it.
"We both messed up," Tim insisted quietly before frowning at Jon's answer to his question, staring wide-eyed at the bone in his hand. Jon's bone. There was a certain surrealness to knowing that the bone he was holding wasn't a relic or some archeological find that sent a slight shiver down Tim's spine as he moved slowly to set it delicately back down into the box before shifting his gaze slowly down onto Jon.
"And why, pray tell, would you keep something like that after its usefulness was done?" Tim asked, a combination of horror, awe, and amusement lacing through his tone.
"Okay," Jon said, though he still felt rather miserable, pressing his face into Tim's shoulder. The contact made everything a little easier, and he realized not for the first time how very touch starved he was. Martin had helped, before everything had gone to absolute shit, but he'd spent so long alone that he still struggled with it. He'd missed Tim so much, not just when he'd died but before that when they had slipped away from each other. Tim had always been the one to pull him out of his head when he got too focused on his work. The one who had been so casually supportive and affectionate. He'd missed it. And he was well aware he had ruined it with his fear and paranoia, but he'd missed it all the same. Maybe if he hadn't fucked up so badly, things would be different. Maybe he wouldn't have vanished for a whole month without a single person caring that he was gone. Most people couldn't manage that. Most people hadn't destroyed every friendship they had. He'd gone through so many horrible things and the others hadn't even known because he hadn't known how to tell them.
"We did," Jon agreed. "But maybe...we can do better now?" He hated how fragile and hopeful his voice sounded to his own ears. He could only imagine how pathetic he sounded to Tim. There was every chance that Tim was willing to comfort him in this moment but nothing more. Every chance he had already ruined this beyond repair. "I...hope that we can."
Then Tim was teasing him, that particular tone Jon hadn't heard in so long back in his voice, and he allowed himself to hope for just a moment. "Nostalgia?" he said. "I find I'm rather attached to it...though less so than I used to be."
Tim had thought he’d been very clear about the fact that all of his anger and bitterness had basically evaporated in the face of actually talking about this, but the hesitation in Jon's voice, the hope tinged with uncertainty, clenched around Tim's heart. Maybe he should have made it even clearer. And he'd been about to clarify when Jon had answered his question about the rib, causing Tim to stop, his brain processing Jon's words in that moment but taking another second to react, the mixture of a snort and a groan leaving him as he bowed against Jon, unable to stem his pained laughter.
"Fucking hell, that was bad," Tim said, shaking his head with a grin. "Like, impressively bad. Didn't know you still had it in you, Jonny-boy," Tim said with a smirk and a wink, his now free arm wrapping Jon up in a full hug again, just sitting there with him for a minute and soaking in the silence before exhaling a shaky breath. "I've missed you, too, dumbass. Way more than I'd have been willing to admit before."