It takes Jon three days to realise that there’s something wrong with him. They pass as they always do, hours lost amongst statements and research, lines of text imprinting themselves in negative on the backs of his eyelids, so that he can stare at them even after he’s given in and wandered to the safe room for the night. The oddities - he can never find his notes (nor any of the others to ask about them), his laptop seems to have had some sort of disagreement with the wifi because he’s not getting any emails (Rosie isn’t at her desk for him to query it), no one ever disturbs him (they have their reasons, he expects, good ones) - take a long time to coalesce into any sort of pattern for him.
That doesn’t mean that he’s unaware. Not completely. The fourth day brings him to leaving his fourth message on Martin’s voicemail, the number sitting uncomfortably in his intestines, alongside the knowledge that Martin doesn’t ignore his calls. He tries to breathe past it, pretend that it isn’t there, presses the plastic of the desk phone unnecessarily hard against his ear. His stomach roils in sympathy with the high-pitched static whistling down the line at him, until a robotic voice at the other end kicks in to tell him that the number he is trying to call cannot be reached. It informs him that he can leave a message, but doesn’t really care whether he does or not.
Martin’s voicemail reply hadn’t been like that before he’d lost his phone to Prentiss. He’d had a recorded one. Jon can’t remember how it went, probably something apologetic and rambling, but he knows that he’d considered it an irritant, it and everything else about Martin.
Maybe he’ll ask Martin to put a new one on there, if he’s intending to continue not answering his phone. Except, that would be inappropriate, and it’s not as if it’s important how Martin has his mobile settings, anyway. He doesn’t need to hear Martin’s voice.
The tone slices through Jon’s thoughts, leaves them twitching in the back of his skull, and it’s a relief.
“Call me back when you get this,” he growls into the receiver. “Or, if you just don’t want to talk to me, for some reason, which is the only conclusion I can draw-” he stops forces himself to breathe, while his mind trips through all the other conclusions that he doesn’t want to admit to, can’t even let them that close to reality. “I’d appreciate it if you could leave your research notes on my desk. But. If you could also - I’d like to - let me know you’re OK?”
He hangs up, before he can do any more damage. Hates the noise the phone makes as it slots back into its cradle, but he knows from yesterday’s attempt that it doesn’t matter how long he spends on his message, Martin’s not going to pick up in the middle of it. Martin’s not going to pick up at all.
Maybe he’s done something. He hopes he’s done something, though he has no idea what it could be, what he could finally have done to upset him.
He can’t help but check his phone for texts, and his eyes are drawn to where he knows, if he scrolls, he’ll find all those messages from Prentiss. He remembers all of them, in exact detail, remembers how it had felt, knowing that he had just read and accepted them, while Martin had been alone and afraid and in the dark. Even now, especially now, it makes his chest hitch like that of a dying rabbit.
He snatches the landline up again, and stabs Tim’s number into it. He knows Tim won’t pick up, because Tim doesn’t for him, not anymore, probably not for anyone. He knows Tim’s answer machine well, a direct line to happier times, when he’d always spoken with a smile in his voice.
That isn’t what responds to him. It’s just the same bland robot as waits on Martin’s.
He doesn’t leave a message. Hangs up, and tries Georgie, fairly sure that if he had managed to upset both her and Martin to the point that they won’t answer his calls, he would at least have some inkling of what he’d done. Same static, same robot, same result. He slams the phone back down, and goes to look for Elias.
Once he’s actually looking, it’s obvious. The Institute is empty. No chattering conversation in the canteen, or hushed breathing in the library, or pointing, laughing pedestrians outside. London is silent, an impossibility beyond the windows.
Elias doesn’t answer Jon’s knocking on his door, and it’s such a relief that he almost lets his legs fold under him, just sits there, cross-legged in the middle of the corridor.
The problem is with him. Nothing to do with Martin or the others. They’re probably fine, because he’s the one that’s been removed, plucked from his reality and deposited in one adjacent. It’s not that Martin’s ignoring his calls, it’s that they just aren’t connecting.
He’ll be fine, too, he expects. As far as he’s aware, the Institute has no argument with the Lukases, and he is the Archivist. Someone will turn up eventually, to threaten, or to explain, or for a bit of both.
In the meantime, Jon has never had any objections to solitude.
No one comes. No Lukas, no Elias, no other poor lost soul, swallowed by the Lonely. He tries writing letters, like Barnabas Bennett, tries scrawling his location on his notes, spells it out in drawing pins on the wall, but nothing changes. If anything, the place imposes itself more. It’s muted, like waking up and knowing there’s been a snowfall. The light isn’t right, either, as though someone has spun the dial that controls the white balance like a top, colours dimming into colder, bluer tones. The air’s so still that it feels like it’s trying to make a point.
Jon keeps working. It’s all he can do, and he’s glad of it. Hadn’t had it before, with Nikola, when it had just been the chair, and the endless comments about his skin, and the waxworks he was trying not to recognise. This, he thinks, should be a more pleasant form of imprisonment, as much as it would have been nice never to be in a position to be ranking them.
Maybe it’s just because it’s the one he’s going through at the moment, but it doesn’t feel any better. He does his research, and he keeps finding things that might interest Georgie, but he can’t tell them to her. Just like he can’t ask the others their opinion on inconsistencies in the statements, or ask them to follow up with the relatives, or refuse their attempts to get him to join them for drinks.
There’s no Martin to leave mugs of tea in all the wrong places, to interrupt Jon just when he’s got a train of thought going, to badger him into going to the canteen. No Martin, but he keeps finding himself looking for him anyway, hoping to see one of those smiles, until thought and reason catch up with precedent, and leave him utterly alone again. It steals his breath from his lungs, every time, long sighs that hollow him out in a way he can’t rectify.
Every day, he goes to Elias’ office, and knocks. The door is always locked, and the noise deadens itself, barely the faintest of stirrings in the air, even when he raps on it hard enough to bruise his knuckles.
He always ends up back in the Archives, none the wiser, watching constantly for any changes in the environment that he didn’t put there.
Jon’s notes vanish. The pins are returned to their box, with no sign that they had ever been anywhere near the wall. His letters turn up in his desk drawers, slashed open, but still, no one comes.
It takes Jon a long time to decide to leave the Institute. Even longer to actually do it. Things keep getting in the way, just as they had when he’d been considering checking in on the others, and he always finds himself deciding that it’s got too late, he’ll try again tomorrow.
He drafts and redrafts his latest attempt at a letter, adds and crosses out and starts again completely, finally stops when he reaches again something that’s just the bare bones of where he is. He agonises over taking a stamp from Martin’s desk, then over whether it should be first or second class, when there’s an untouched book of each in there. He writes Martin’s address on an envelope, then Georgie’s, then Martin’s again.
He doesn’t realise that he’s actually procrastinating it, that there’s something sitting in his brain between him and the outside world, until he runs out of things to do as preamble and somehow manages to walk straight past the Institute’s door three times. It’s like the knowledge that he has to turn just skips out of his skull the second he gets near it.
As soon as he notices, Jon stops. Draws in a breath, holds it, and strides as quickly and confidently as he can at the door. Nothing stops him. He pulls it open, and there’s no force yanking it back into place, no sudden rattling of the handle from the other side, no crack of furious thunder across the sky.
He takes a step over the threshold, and his gaze skitters uneasily over the street beyond. Nothing challenges him. Nothing even moves. There’s nothing there, he tells himself, that can move, no reason for him to be concerned. His neck shouldn’t be prickling the way it is, spine holding itself uncomfortably straight.
Teeth gritted, he forces himself out onto the pavement, an empty street in an empty London that contains nothing for him to worry about.
There’s a post box only a couple of minutes walk away from the Institute, but every second, every step, weighs him down. He almost feels watched, though there are no pedestrians on the pavements, no cars on the roads, no faces in the windows, and besides, it’s not just the sensation of eyes on him. He’s grown well used to that by now. It’s more that there’s something there, something far bigger and colder than him, that it knows he’s there.
The flags on the building beside the post box hang unnaturally still, with less motion to them than a picture would have had. Jon hunches his shoulders, and takes one last look at the envelope, with its second class stamp, fixed in exactly the right spot, and Martin’s carefully printed name and address, almost lost in the separate continent of the paper’s centre, and pushes it through the slot.
He wants to snatch it back immediately, irrationally. Remembers how his grandmother had always had difficulty describing things from memory, directions and lost cats and people’s faces, and finds himself abruptly dry-throated over the idea that he’ll somehow forget how to spell Martin’s name, lose the shape it makes on the page.
He lets himself trace the words over the top of the box, a reassurance against a mind that won’t stop worrying at itself, like a teething, anxious dog. It’s not as if there’s anyone there to see or judge him for it, he tells himself, though his shaking hands don’t believe him.
It won’t matter for much longer, he decides. Royal Mail will come, and collect the letter, it’ll wander through their system until it’s being pushed through Martin’s door, and then the others will find a way to get him back. He imagines it, and the smile creeps onto his face even at the idea of Melanie’s scowling.
Martin will want to hug him, he thinks, the way he had done after Daisy and Basira had brought him in, the split second where everything had been jumper, before he’d pulled back, stammering through apology after apology, still grinning like all his Christmases had come at once.
Maybe, this time, Jon will do more than just pat awkwardly at Martin’s back until he’s released.
He taps at the top of the post box, at the space where he’d left Martin’s name, invisible to everyone but him, and turns back towards the Institute.
The walk takes hours. The pavements and the roads and the buildings don’t seem to stretch any further than they should, but Jon walks and walks and walks, and he doesn’t get back. He moves, knows he’s moving, but the Institute remains distant. He can’t seem to understand how, but the panic starting to fuss at the edges of his senses insists that he should have known, that he had known, at the periphery of his consciousness. That this was why he hadn’t wanted to leave the Institute in the first place, that on some level he had understood that Beholding’s place of power might be difficult to find in another entity’s plane, and he had just ignored it.
Eventually, he starts to run. By the time that he gets back, the letter is already there, a neat cut down the end the only sign that it had ever left. It has no postmark.
I’m trapped in some sort of isolation dimension - it’s the Lukases. I’m not hurt, and I don’t seem to be in any danger.
There’s a knock at the door to Jon’s office, and he doesn’t believe in it. It’s not the first one he’s heard, after all, and none of the others had come to anything. And it’s not a pattern, or a tone that he recognises. Not soft enough to be Martin’s recent efforts, and not angry enough for Tim’s or Melanie’s or Daisy’s, too chirpy for Basira’s. Elias would have just come right in.
No one who belongs is knocking, so there’s probably no one knocking at all. Just the idea of knocking, introduced into his brain because it’s just that stupidly desperate for there to be someone else there. Stock sound.
It comes again, and this time it isn’t alone. There’s a voice, now, just outside the door, cheerful and friendly.
“Archivist,” it says.
Jon startles, stumbles from his chair so violently that a bundle of papers sweeps down onto the floor. He nearly trips over them in his rush to the door, accidentally stands on his latest scrawlings to Martin in his haste to get it open, smothers the uncomfortable pang that follows with a wrench at the handle.
The man - monster - on the other side smiles, almost but not quite pleasantly, and holds out a hand.
“Peter Lukas,” he says. “Pleased to meet you.”
Jon glares from him to the proffered hand, tries to use the heat of it to hide the way that he’s trying to remember how to make his voice work.
“Why am I here?” he demands, finally, and it leaves an odd taste in his mouth, sounds strange from disuse.
“Elias asked me to bring you here,” Peter says. “He thought it would be safer to keep you here, where no one else can get to you. I have to say, I agree. You’ve proven thoroughly inept at self-preservation, from what I hear. I’m the only monster here, and for now, our interests align.”
“And why are you here now?” Jon folds his arms across his chest, tries to make it as clear as he can that he has no interest in shaking hands, in the hope that Peter will put his down. “It’s been…” His voice trails off, lost in the realisation that he doesn’t know how long it’s been.
“Couple of things. Elias wants you to start reading the statements he’s leaving for you, it’ll make you feel better. And.” Peter’s face twitches, distaste writ across the features. “He says he needs you sane, and that for that you’d need a bit of company. I did explain that this is the domain of the Lonely, and not just a safe space for him to stick his Archivist in, but he was rather insistent, and it is always nice to have him owe me a few more favours.”
He gestures with his outstretched hand, and when Jon turns his head to follow it, Martin is hunched over his desk. His chest constricts at the sight, all the moving things in it going still, and he stares.
Martin’s paler than he should be, seems to have shrunk into a jumper that Jon’s sure is more motheaten than the last time he’d seen it. He’s curling over a file, sitting on the desk in front of him, and his lips are moving, but Jon knows from experience that it’s not as simple as reading it.
He murmurs Martin’s name, and finds that it falls from his lips just the same as it always has, like he’s been keeping it safe behind his teeth all this time, letting the rest of language become stilted and unnatural in its place.
“He was the only one here,” Peter tells him, like he’s taken what he wasn’t supposed to hear as a question. “I understand he seldom leaves.”
“Martin,” Jon says again, a little more loudly. There’s no reaction. Jon watches, and waits, and he thinks that there’s a slight shift about Martin’s face, but it’s not him. Martin’s never looked at him like that, and he’s glad of it. There’s a sheen to his eyes that Jon doesn’t like, wouldn’t want anywhere near him. It’s the statement, whatever experience it’s pushing into Martin’s head.
“Martin!” Jon snatches at the file, trying to drag it away from him, because it shouldn’t be like this, had never been like this for him. He’d never become so engrossed in the statements that he didn’t respond to what was around him. It’s not right. It’s dangerous, if something like Prentiss were to happen again, and Martin wasn’t aware…
He flinches back from the idea of Martin, still narrating into the tape recorder even as the worms push their way through the first layers of his skin, and that could explain why he fails to get hold of the statement. Could explain the first time, but not the second, or the third, or the fourth, when he gives up on the file entirely, and just scrabbles towards Martin’s hand.
He just can’t seem to make himself reach.
“He doesn’t know we’re here,” Peter says, moves to stand at Jon’s shoulder, unsettlingly cheerful. “Can’t hear you. Or see you. You can’t connect.”
“Martin,” Jon says, without meaning to.
Martin finishes the statement. The change is so abrupt and so utterly visible that it turns Jon’s stomach. His breathing’s all wrong, drags at his chest so violently that Jon can see it even under his jumper, his fingers scoring lines across his forehead. His nose starts to bleed, and he blots at it with his other hand, stammers out what Jon thinks must be some sort of apology to the tape recorder.
He claws his way slowly back towards something that doesn’t quite resemble steadiness, but his shoulders still slump when his blood drips onto the follow-up notes. His attempts to clear it up just smear it, and more starts to trickle through his fingers.
Why aren’t the others helping you, I told you to make sure they helped you, he wants to ask, but even if he could have verbalised it, Martin can’t hear him.
Martin turns the recorder off, finally, and folds. No longer trying to keep up any sort of appearance. He coughs into his sleeve, then just sits there and lets his nose bleed, barely even trying to regain any regularity to his breathing.
Jon shouldn’t be seeing this. His neck prickles with the idea that he’s intruding, that this isn’t something that Martin would want him to see, but he can’t turn away, can’t choose not to see Martin when it’s the first time he’s been given the choice in far too long.
His throat hurts.
“Let me talk to him,” he finds himself saying, though the words ache. “They’re hurting him. I have to get him to stop-”
“Never enough, is it?” Peter says, but the words don’t match the nearly gleeful tone he’s using.
He gestures again, and Jon’s still for a split second before he realises what it means, and lunges for Martin’s already-fading hand.
This time, he almost makes it, but it’s like there’s a force of magnetic repulsion between them, refusing to let them touch.
Jon grabs for him again, refuses to lose him, but he’s almost gone.
Martin sits up a little straighter, suddenly, looks around himself.
“Jon?” he says, or, at least, that’s what Jon reads off his lips. He can’t hear it, and Peter can’t hear it, and then the office is again empty of everyone but him and Peter.
Jon stands there, frozen, staring into the space where Martin had been.
“That’s quite something,” Peter says, something bright on his face that Jon would have compared to a smile, if he hadn’t known better. “I thought it would undo all my hard work, for you to see him. To see anyone. But it’s just made you even more lonely, hasn’t it?”
Jon doesn’t look at him, just keeps watching, keeps on feeling the hollow place in his chest. By the time that he can finally wrench his eyes from it again, Peter Lukas has gone.
You don’t have to read any more statements. I’m reading them here. If Elias needs more, I’ll do them. You don’t have to. Please stop.
Jon’s always careful to check the notes on his desk for blood, after that. He doesn’t find any, and hopes that it had just been some awful coincidence, that Martin’s episode had been entirely unrelated to the statement. But even if it had been, the distress on Martin’s face had been real enough.
He checks the safe room, too, when he returns to it for the night. Remembers Peter saying that Martin doesn’t leave the Institute, so he supposes that he must be sleeping there, too. Finds himself wondering how many times they’ve shared the bed and been completely unaware of it. It should feel uncomfortable, he thinks, but instead it seems to soothe the fraying edges of his senses.
He finds himself scrutinising the sheets, searching for even the faintest impression of Martin in the creases that he’s sure he couldn’t have left himself. It’s as much an invasion as reading the statement had been, but he can’t stop. Superimposes the idea of Martin onto the empty bed, and lies opposite it, holds his limbs carefully, so that he’s not intruding.
When he closes his eyes, he tries to imagine Martin, sleeping peacefully, safe and sound, all right, really. Jon hopes he wouldn’t mind.
It’s a long time before the bed feels comfortable again, but even the half-imagined contact is a warmth that he can’t bring himself to give up.
I’m afraid we’ve been sharing a bed since I went missing. It wouldn’t feel right not to tell you. I don’t mind, but if you’d prefer not to, I can try and find alternate arrangements. Or you could go home and get some proper rest. Please write back.
Martin isn’t getting his letters. He’s known that, on some level, all along, he thinks. There’s a pile of them, in his desk drawer, where they always end up, all neatly opened with one long slit along the edge of the envelope. Had always been wrong, had sat off-centre in his head, waiting to be examined.
That’s not how Martin opens his post. Jon’s seen him, heard the hisses as he gives himself papercuts, tearing into them in great uneven strips, recycling bin never far away and stamps carefully collected for the Albatross Appeal.
Elias’ letter opener is a sharp, precise thing, ever-exact. It cuts.
Martin would write back. Elias would let his experiment continue.
It makes the letters easier and harder to write.
Please disregard my last
six seven letters. I’m trying.
He walks into his office to find Martin already there, scrunched into his place at Jon’s desk, tape recorder left to the side like an afterthought.
“Martin?” Jon tries, and wishes that it doesn’t feel quite so much like his chest is being crushed, to receive exactly the lack of response that he expects.
He’s reading, a book that Jon vaguely recognises from the library. For a moment, he considers trying to reach him again, slamming his hands into the desk to make it shudder, wrenching at the book, hammering pins into the wall. But it won’t work, and he knows it won’t work, so he leans back into the wall, and watches.
Martin’s eyes move over the page, and Jon wonders if he would be able to construct himself a scenario where there’s no different dimension at all, that he’d never been taken, that they’re just working, together in companionable silence.
It won’t work. Jon’s too fixated on him, watching his face, his hands where they sit against the edge of the page he already has half-turned, the faint rise and fall of his breathing. His hair is ruffled, and Jon thinks, guilt trying to shrivel at his insides but glancing off because Martin’s here, of the previous night, of resting his forehead against where his best guess had placed Martin’s, or trying to dream of him.
Martin twitches, the violence of the movement jolting Jon back to the present, and then his place in the book is gone, pages fluttering past his fingers. He tries to scramble up, but seems to lose his footing, thumps back down into his chair.
“No need to get up,” Peter says, and Martin stops trying, his eyes as wide as if it had been a threat. Maybe it had. Jon takes a step towards them, trying to gather enough himself to react, and Peter takes a moment to smile at him over Martin’s head. “Not on my account.”
Too close, Jon thinks, his fingernails stinging against his palms.
“Oh,” Martin says. Jon hears him, actually hears him, for the first time since he’d been taken, and it nearly sets him stumbling back into the wall again.
“Martin?” he tries, but neither Martin not Peter reacts.
“What can I do for you?” Martin stumbles through the words, once the long silence of Peter’s stare has become too much for him, and he needs distraction more than air.
“Always so polite,” Peter says. He circles around, and his hands fall heavy onto Martin’s shoulders, a mockery of everything that Jon can’t have. Martin starts, shrinks into his chair, but Peter doesn’t let go of him. He taps his fingers against Martin’s jumper, like he’s trying to play a tune against his collarbones, digs his thumbs in as though to provide a massage. Martin squirms in his grip, but doesn’t fight.
“Is there something I can help you with?” he tries, but there’s enough shaking in the words that Jon can hardly make them out.
“Let go of him.” It takes Jon a second to realise that it’s him talking, that he’s not just the watcher who forgets how to use his own voice, that he has a place and an opinion and that everything he is recoils from this.
Peter hears him. Jon can tell that by the quirk of his eyebrows, but he doesn’t let go. Instead, he moves one of his hands, just slightly, so that his fingertips brush at skin. Martin tries to bolt, but Peter’s other hand keeps him in place. He leans in, as if to talk to him, and Jon can see his breath stirring Martin’s hair. He traces a finger along Martin’s neck, and meets Jon’s eyes, that smile still playing about his lips.
Martin cringes, and for just a second, Jon thinks that his wildly darting eyes have settled on him, but then they’re gone again, and there’s nothing except the ache in his jaw, where it presses his teeth together, the slow roiling summer-storm anger flooding his skull.
“If you’re going to kill me,” Martin says, voice so suddenly, surprisingly even, that Jon’s chest throbs with it. “I’d rather you just got on with it.”
“Not today,” Peter says, and wraps his hand lightly around Martin’s throat. “This isn’t for your benefit.”
Martin blinks, hard, his hands pressing into the desk like he’s using every shred of self-control he has not to use them to rip Peter’s grip away. “There are better ways of getting Elias’ attention,” he manages. “Like… going to his office. And knocking. He’s not going to come all the way down here for me.”
“Tell me,” Peter says, still as genial as if he were asking Martin to fill in a feedback form. “Do you miss your Archivist?”
“Yes,” Martin says, as easily and honestly as if he’d been compelled. The quiet sits, for a long moment, and then he’s rushing to break it again. Jon finds himself realising that Peter can probably feel the vibration of his voice, and hates himself for that small sliver of jealousy. “But Elias says he’ll be back soon.”
“Hm,” Peter says, gives Martin’s throat a light squeeze. Martin’s breathing hitches like it was more, blinks again, forcing his eyelids together with far too much pressure. “Do you believe him?”
“Shouldn’t I?” Martin tries to say, but the result is more of a whisper, barely audible.
Peter hums, runs his index finger back around, watches the shiver ripple through Martin’s body.
“Don’t touch him,” Jon growls, shaking himself. He can’t stop it, hasn’t tried, knows it wouldn’t work. There’s too much feeling in it.
“You seem very lonely, Martin,” Peter says, and Jon knows a threat when he hears one, even when it’s delivered in a tone that friendly, even when he doesn’t know if Martin has recognised it. He takes another step towards them, wonders, in a corner of his brain that doesn’t really matter, if the thing that won’t let him touch Martin will work for Peter, too.
“Was that everything?” Martin presses, one of his arms lifting slightly, hand trembling, halfway towards Peter’s.
“It was,” Peter says. He holds onto him for just long enough to make sure that Martin understands that there’s nothing he can do to make him let go, and then he releases him. Martin drops like he’d been suspended several feet off the ground, air rushing in and out of his lungs as though making up for lost time. “I’ll see you again soon.”
Martin’s gone a moment later, and it should hurt, has hurt every other time, but Jon’s head is too full of anger to acknowledge pain.
“Was that a threat?” he demands, forces the question at Peter, who’s watching him, waiting for it.
“I just wanted to see if you make him as lonely as he makes you,” Peter says, ever-smiling.
“You stay away from him,” Jon manages, but the words are difficult, as he tries to force them past the desire to ask Peter what he’d found, drag his results from him, and find out if Martin has that same aching hollow behind his ribs, if he dreams of Jon the same way Jon dreams of him.
“Didn’t you like seeing him?” Peter asks, seems like he’s trying to play at bafflement. “I got him to speak for you, and everything. Even let you hear it. I thought you missed him?”
“You don’t touch him.” Jon takes another step closer, and hit brings him close enough to hit out, if he decides to. He wants to, wants to break every one of Peter’s fingers, isn’t quite sure how to go about it, but he expects he’ll be able to work it out. And if he can’t, well, if Peter knows, Jon can make him tell.
“You’re hardly in any position to make demands, Archivist,” Peter says, unruffled. “I could go back and break him in half if I wanted to, and then abandon you here.” His tone pushes towards something falsely conciliatory. “But if it distresses you that much, I’ll consider it.”
You knew how I’d react, Jon thinks, and his fists twitch at his sides. He forces them to relax, uncurls them, presses his palms against his trousers, keeping Peter’s threat echoing through his head.
“I’d appreciate it,” he grinds out. “If you didn’t go near him again.”
“We’ll see,” Peter says, and the look on his face tells Jon that it’s the best he’s ever going to get.
Please be careful.
I know you can’t hear me, and you won’t see this, but please.
Jon can’t find any of Martin’s statements. Not the ones he’d given, the ones he’d recorded, the ones he’d interrupted. None of them. Just the spaces where they should be. Jon scrabbles into them, jams his fingers between tapes, as if they could have fallen back, somehow, but there’s nothing there.
It’s Peter, or Elias, or Peter and Elias, who control whether or not he hears Martin’s voice. Whether or not he sees him. Knows he’s alive. Jon can’t stand the rationing of it, or remembering how he used to resent the company, resent Martin, when all he wants to do now is touch him, learn him. Instead, he’s drip-fed just enough of him to keep him sane, and to rip what had been an ache since he’d been taken into a wound that won’t stop bleeding.
I miss you.
There is a dead fly in the corner of Jon’s office. It lies on its back, legs folded in neatly across its body like an unwrapped pharaoh, wings a flat sheen against the boards. He watches it. Waits to see if, eventually, a spider will come and drag it off somewhere. If there can even be spiders, here.
It stays there, hour after hour. Jon wonders if he had ever seen it alive. He doesn’t think so. The buzzing would have thrummed through his head, and interrupted everything that he says to Martin, who isn’t there.
He wonders if he would be able to see other corpses. If life is all that keeps other consciousnesses out of this place. If, if he went to the nearest graveyard and dug, he would see someone on a whim that wasn’t Peter’s. But, then he might never find his way back to the Institute, where Martin is, always, sometimes, never.
Maybe, he thinks, it’s good that he never sees the others, when he goes looking. It doesn’t feel good, it feels like his ribcage has been replaced by a clothes airer, unsuited to its task and too prone to folding. But lots of things feel bad and are good. Like cough medicine.
He’ll ask, he decides, when he sees Peter again. He’ll force him to tell him what illness this is in aid of curing, what monsters Elias thinks he needs to be protected from at the risk of his own sanity.
The fly stays where it is. Jon checks on it after every statement, his brain fussing at the construction of the dimension. It shouldn’t be there (neither should he). Had Peter brought it here on purpose, in retribution for whatever slight a fly might have committed against him? Had it been his clothes, when he moved between the worlds? Had it just found its way in, somehow, and, like all other flies, never found the way out?
He writes about it to Martin, but he tears that one up, because he still cares what Martin, who wouldn’t see the letter anyway, would think of him. It goes on the pile of torn up letters in his waste paper bin, as he tries to write down what he’s forgetting how to say.
I know you’ll never see this. I don’t even know if I want you to read it, or any of them. I address them to you, I leave them on your desk, but I know you don’t get them. I’ll never tell you. all these things you can’t hear me.
He can see, from his desk, the place where the fly is. It’s just a faint black smudge from there, but it’s still present. So is he. Perhaps Peter and Elias have forgotten him, just another twitching insect on a windowsill. It’s been such a long time since he’s been allowed to see anyone.
The statements had used to help. Had given him someone else’s mind to live in, for a little while, but nowadays he always seems to end up in the space after them, sitting empty, letting himself haze over, watching the fly so that his eyes have somewhere to go.
Perhaps he’s not been reading the right statements. It’s not as if his laptop works well enough, in this place, for him to check them to see if they’re genuine or not.
The noise finally processes, and he turns his head, slowly, towards the unfamilarity of his own name.
Martin’s standing there, one hand on the door and a file slipping from the other one, papers spilling out onto the floor in a cascade of type, the sound of it an unusual ruffling at Jon’s brain.
Jon stands, carefully, because Martin is looking at him, not just through him, or past him, and the sensation of it makes his knees shake, just slightly.
“Martin,” he says, and it sounds just as steady as it always has.
“Jon!” Martin crosses the distance, as though Jon had broken some spell, letting the door swing shut behind him, fallen file forgotten. He throws his arms around Jon, pulling him in against his chest, and Jon stands, for a moment, waiting for his skin to protest at the strangeness of it all. All there is is warmth, flooding through him, evening out all the angles. He sighs, leans in, lets his forehead flop against Martin’s shoulder, closes his eyes at the sensation of it all. This, he thinks, is something he’s been wanting, for a very long time, hours measured in trying to keep all those memories of him safe.
And then Martin’s pulling back, stuttered apologies twisting at his lips, far too soon.
There’s something rushing in Jon’s skull that feels like panic. He doesn’t think, just yanks Martin back into a kiss. Hits at the wrong angle, teeth clacking, and Martin tries to flinch back. Jon won’t let him, one desperate hand on the nape of his neck, holding him in place. He adjusts, tries again, and Martin’s mouth is soft, yielding.
He likes it, he thinks. Had hoped that he would, down in the quiet places of his mind where the thoughts aren’t really given words. He had wanted to like kissing Martin, if he ever got the chance, and he does. He likes that Martin likes it, too, that he stops trying to extract Jon from his arms, that way he kisses back, after far too long a hesitation.
It isn’t enough. Jon dares to kiss a little harder, lets his hands wander down until he’s pulling Martin in closer by the front of his trousers. Martin twitches, manages to pull away.
“Jon?” he asks, wide-eyed and uncertain. Jon wants to explain, but he’s gone so long without even trying to string sentences together aloud, that all he can do is shove him, crowd him back towards the desk, fumble at his fly.
“Jon, I don’t-” Martin breaks off into a hiss, as Jon’s fingers press against him. “I didn’t think you-”
Jon drags at his waistband, hopes that that is explanation enough, but one of Martin’s hands lands over his, stills them.
“Jon?” Martin asks, concerned, his other hand resting against Jon’s cheek, his palm warm, the textures of it warmer. Jon tangles his fingers with Martin’s, and lifts his wrist to kiss along it, finds it easier when he isn’t trying to find the words to explain how that feels. “Are you sure you want to-”
“Please, Martin,” he murmurs, against the skin. Knows that Martin would never deny him anything.
Martin doesn’t. He lets himself be pushed back onto the desk, lets Jon strip him, watches in numb silence until Jon’s pulled that ever-ridiculous jumper over his head and made a start on the buttons of his shirt, and then it’s Martin’s mouth is on his, Martin’s hands scrabbling at Jon’s clothes.
He sighs into Martin’s mouth at the sensation of his palms against his skin, the gentle pressure of it, but it still isn’t enough, because the contact sings to him like the powers he has no desire to listen to, notes and chords that push through his chest, rather than his ears, settle behind his ribs.
He moves forward between Martin’s knees just as Martin finally manages to do something about his damn clothes. He pushes Martin down onto his back, revels in his ability to touch, traces the backs of his thighs, breaks the kiss in favour of sucking and biting at his neck. Makes marks, has to, so that Martin knows he’s been there.
That close, he can feel the vibrations in Martin’s chest when he moans, and they’re almost enough to make his teeth lose their grip, from trying to smile at them.
He pulls open his top desk drawer without looking, knows that Tim keeps some of his stuff there, and what that’s likely to entail. Prepares himself, prepares Martin, forces himself to go slowly, through the insistence in his head that he make Martin his, make himself Martin’s, before anything can separate them again. He knows his grip on Martin’s hips will leave bruises, wonders if Martin will leave any on him.
They find their rhythm, and Jon’s head empties of everything except it. He wraps a hand around Martin, listens to his own name as it blurs past Martin’s lips, tumbling into itself. Martin keeps touching him, fingers examining his vertebrae, the lines of his shoulder blades, following all the lines that Jon’s back offers him without thought or reason, as lost as Jon as Jon is in him.
Jon watches his face, the way it changes, half in case he does something wrong, and half so that he can file away all those expressions, along with the sensation of it when Martin moves back into his thrusts, the fizzing in his stomach when he meets his eyes, the feeling of being known and wanted and present.
Martin’s eyes slide shut, as he comes under Jon’s fingers, and Jon follows a moment later, with Martin’s hands in his hair and Martin’s mouth on his and Martin’s legs around him. He relaxes against him, presses his face to Martin’s shoulder, wishes that he could just collapse beside him, but the hard angles and papers of the desk could never be comfortable.
“I missed you,” he murmurs. Martin makes a vague, unintelligible noise in response, and kisses the top of his head, when it’s clear that it wasn’t even approaching language.
They find their way to the safe room, eventually, and Jon can’t swallow his smile when Martin settles onto the bed in exactly the way that he had always imagined, in the space that Jon had always left for him. They lie as he had always hoped they would, just for a second, before Martin wraps an arm around him to pull him in closer.
“I missed you too,” he mumbles, but he’s already starting to drift, eyes losing a little of their focus. “How was your research trip?”
Research trip. Of course Elias hadn’t told him, hadn’t told any of them, and now Jon can’t, either. He knows what’ll happen if he does, the guilt Martin will have for even something this far out of control. He might even regret what had happened, think he’d taken advantage somehow. He hadn’t, Jon knows that he hadn’t, but finding the words to convince Martin, no matter how long he’s been practicing with pen and ink, that this wouldn’t have happened with anyone but him, had never got any easier.
“It was fine,” Jon says, and the lie tastes sour. He forces it out anyway. “I wrote you a lot of letters, but I, er, couldn’t find a post box.”
“Oh,” Martin says, and there’s the faintest spark of alertness in him. “What did they say?”
“Nothing important,” he says. He can do better than them, anyway, now Martin’s here. He just needs a little practice, a little time.
Martin hums, and it’s a last thrum of noise before he drifts away into sleep. Jon can’t follow him there, still too entranced by the presence of him. He listens to Martin’s breathing, traces patterns across his skin, touches for the sake of touching, more gently now.
It’s almost an hour before Martin starts to fade. Jon hardly notices it at first, wondering at the weight on the bed next to him, until he goes to count the freckles on Martin’s shoulder, and finds that he can see the sheet through it.
“Martin?” he says, and his voice is already starting to strangle, eyes hot.
Martin doesn’t wake up. Jon can’t tell if he’s just too far under, or if he’s already too far away. He snatches at Martin’s skin, at his hair, but his fingers just slide through empty space, the shape of the person he was going to find a way to explain it all to gone.
“Martin!” He doesn’t even try to keep the break from his voice.
“I hope you enjoyed him.”
Jon recoils into the bedsheets, stares wild-eyed at Peter Lukas, who stands on the other side of the safe room, leaning against the wall and watching him with laughter in his face.
“Where is he?” Jon demands, pulling at the sheet in an attempt to cover himself, hands shaking.
“He’s gone back,” Peter says, as though it shouldn’t have needed explaining. “Visiting hours are over.”
“No,” Jon says, tangles himself in the blankets trying to escape them, nearly falls. “No, I need him, please-”
“Do you want me to bring him back?” Peter asks, delighted. “Trap him here with you?”
Yes, Jon thinks, but his brain has stalled on the idea that it’s not right, that it’s something he shouldn’t want. He does anyway.
“So you can fuck him whenever you want?” Peter says, laughs when Jon flinches back from the way he’s said it, like it was something so simple it could be reduced into four letters, like it hadn’t meant more to him.
“So he’ll be safe!” Jon protests, and the fact that the idea has only just found its way into his head doesn’t make it any less true. There are only ever two monsters here, and neither he nor Peter have any reason to hurt Martin.
“So you won’t be alone anymore?” Peter smiles, leans in, and Jon can feel with the way his chest is cracking that he’s already lost the argument. “I’ll tell you what I told Elias. This is the Lonely. You are in my domain, and I have to feed. I will only ever give him to you so that I can take him away again.”
“How much longer?” Jon can’t even tell if he’s compelling anymore. It doesn’t sound like the Archivist’s voice, assured and pressing. Too raw, too splintered.
“Until Elias is ready,” Peter says. His lips twitch. “Of course, he’ll have quite the debt to repay. What should I ask him for, Archivist? What do you think’s worth the favour I’ve done him, Jon?”
“No,” Jon snarls, scrambles to his feet, letting the sheet fall away because he doesn’t give a fuck what Peter sees, even as something in him protests the rumpling of the place where Martin had been lying, some artefact of him that’s been destroyed, a relic he was supposed to keep. “You don’t need him, he already belongs to-”
“I’m not proposing to mark him or claim him,” Peter says, and he lets his features finally settle into an honest grin. “No, I’d rather keep him as he is. I like how it tastes when he misses you.”
He’s gone before Jon’s punch can land. Jon stands there, his breathing at the same tempo as it had been when he had been fleeing from Not-Sasha in the tunnels. It’s hours before it quiets, along with everything else in his head, and he goes back to his desk, to start on another letter to Martin, writing down again everything that he should never have let a monster like Peter Lukas see.