The walls of Jon’s office are shrinking. It’s not something he notices immediately - it’s a slow process, and he’s always been notoriously bad at taking in his surroundings, at least beyond what’s necessary. It still bothers him, unconsciously, for a few weeks, until he realizes what’s happening - not seeing doesn’t mean he doesn’t know that something’s wrong, and these days he’s certainly better at focusing on what’s properly nagging at him, rather than redirecting it towards innocent people.
Of course, it might be because there are not a lot of innocent people left in Jon’s entourage, but he prefers not to think about that. It tends to make Peter Lukas smug, and he is certainly around way too much for Jon’s liking, but that’s the price he pays for sending his - for sending Elias away. At least as long as he bothers him, Lukas is not tempted to go talk to Basira or Melanie.
He looks for it; for the unspoken threat he can feel pulsing every time he steps into his office. The Eye offers the vision of Gertrude, emotionlessly throwing an arm into a giant pit; the coffin sings; Jon doesn’t blink. He thinks about Martin, and a moment later, his bookcases are an edge closer to his desk than they were before.
Jon doesn’t know who Martin Blackwood is, the first time he meets him. It’s late in the night, and he forgot to leave the Institute at a regular, “proper” hour again, which means that the train home is almost entirely empty. A small blessing, as far as Jon is concerned, because he’s had a headache all day long and the Institute has been buzzing with the news of Gertrude Robinson’s disappearance, leaving no room for quiet no matter how much he tried to hide away from the gossip. He is curious, like all the others; Gertrude Robinson is a bit of a legend in the Institute, what with the terrible archival system and the fact she never seems to be available when researchers go down to the Archives, but his curiosity is dampened by the headache and the uncomfortable feeling that something is - peering down at him…
Martin Blackwood sits right next to him in the train, shoulder against shoulder, and ignores Jon’s annoyed glare - there are so many empty seats tonight - with the sort of kind, solicitous smile that makes Jon immediately suspicious that he’s going to ask for something. A quick glance is enough to see the trail of mud staining his pants, his dirty shoes, and the few petals in his messy hair.
“You look burdened,” Martin says kindly.
Jon, who was pondering on whether or not giving this clearly homeless man some money would make him leave, is taken aback by this.
“Lot of pressure at work, perhaps?” Martin continues.
“I fail to see how it’s your concern at all,” Jon retorts sharply.
“Oh,” Martin blinks. “Well, you’re here, you see. I’m always happy to hear about whatever weighs people down. I think it helps them, to talk a bit about it before - or, well, I suppose, it could be that I just took the habit in my last job, I guess?”
Jon is not in the mood to listen to this; the air around him feels stilled, heavy, and the man’s smell is rather strong and earthy, none of which is helping his headache. At this point, all he wants to do is go home, sleep this off, and go back to work with a fresh eye so that he can make at least some progress on the case of Jane Prentiss. He looks up to see how many stations he’s got left until he has to get off the train - then he realizes with a frown that he doesn’t remember the train stopping at all since he got in.
Nevertheless; he has to get out - the thought is imperative, burning, all-encompassing in his mind suddenly. He needs to get away. He takes his wallet out of his pocket, grabs a few coins, and throws them into the lap of the man next to him, who looks both affronted and amused by it, before rising up nervously. Martin might say thank you, or maybe he stays silent; Jon doesn’t remember. He knows that, eventually, he starts to wonder why the train keeps going, and going, and going - all the while turning his back firmly to the homeless man, eyes stuck on the door.
He doesn’t know how long it lasts; but eventually, the train comes to an abrupt, violent stop. Jon almost falls.
“I suppose this is your stop, then,” Martin muses behind him thoughtfully.
The doors open, and Jon steps out; a cold shiver runs down his spine when he realizes that he’s at the same station he stepped in earlier. Instinct tells him he should walk away and pretend this never happened. His sceptic mind tells him he’s fallen asleep, and this is a dream. Something else, deep in his bones, ingrained in him since he was eight year old and watched a boy disappear right in front of him, makes him glance back at the train and at the man inside. His tongue is tingling with questions he’s afraid to ask.
Martin smiles, and it is sweet, and it is terrifying.
“I think we’ll see each other again soon enough,” he says with a small, decisive nod, and waves as the doors close again.
He’s not surprised the next time he enters into his office, and there’s barely enough room left to navigate between the desk, the coffin, and the bookcase. He wishes he felt scared but it’s - almost nice, in a terrifying way, to see all this empty space slowly disappear. He’d never realized until he woke up and Peter Lukas had taken over, how much a large room can make you feel… well, alone in it. It’s no wonder the Fairchilds and the Lukases get along so well. Now the air is heavy, and Jon could be tempted to keep the door open to let it circulate better. But in this case it would be a rejection rather than an invitation, and he - yearns. Maybe it’s because Basira is away, because Tim’s dead, because Georgie’s gone and Melanie is better far from him. Maybe it’s because the beating heart of the Institute is locked in a prison he does not wish to leave for now, and Daisy is trapped in a coffin. Or - maybe - maybe - Jon only wants to see Martin’s smile.
There’s nothing much to do these days other than read; he tries to space out the statements, but the need is nearly constant since he woke up. Besides, it’s either that or worrying about - everything , and when he worries too much his God starts to give him answers he doesn’t necessarily want at all. So he lets the tape recorder turn itself on, grabs a file he picked out at random earlier, and clears his throat.
“Statement of Madeline Rochester, regarding the bush in her country house -”
He loses himself for a little while; it’s almost like he’s her, Madeline, sixty years old and at a loss for what to do after retiring and her husband’s death, trying her hands at gardening; he can feel her fear at the bush growing, devouring flowers and her dog, lurking at the edge of her house, until even her bedroom is filled with dirt and dying leaves, until the water doesn’t turn on anymore, it’s all dirt, everywhere, entombing her alive in that house that she bought with a husband that cannot protect her anymore; he speaks and there’s deep, saddened relief in his chest as Madeline resigns herself to death, hopeful enough that at least she’ll be free of any more worry, that she’ll get her husband back…
He comes back slowly, energy buzzing under his skin; he is trapped between the bookcase and his desk, the coffin fitting in a way it shouldn’t right next to them. The books dig into his chair, and he leans his head back, eyes fluttering closed. When he breathes, it smells like the crisp air of the forest, and he thinks he should leave, or at the very least worry that this is not what he thinks, that maybe it’s the coffin, pushing back -
Instead he licks his lips and says: “Martin?”
There’s no answer, but the bookcase moves again, and for a few seconds he is utterly trapped, the desk digging into his stomach; it’s painful, it’s heavy, and he loses his breath - but these days, it’s as close as he gets to an embrace, and when suddenly it’s over, he’s aghast to realize his eyes are a bit wet, not from pain, but from longing.
Martin is not a hard monster to know, because he seems very inclined to tell his name to people he terrorizes; he’ll chat with them, give them a terrible experience that leaves them scared of enclosed spaces or dirt - or both - forever, and then he apparently lets them go (at least, he lets go of enough that several of them come to leave their statements). Somewhere in the back of his mind, Jon makes the connection between him and the homeless man he met once, during a time that now feels like forever ago. He lets the researchers and Elias know that there might be some real danger here, dutifully contacts the police to offer a description of Martin Blackwood - though he doubts this will lead anywhere - and moves on to other cases.
There are other things to worry about soon enough anyway. And then, Prentiss is dead ( but is she?), Gertrude’s body is found (who killed her?) and Elias refuses to hear the idea he might come back to the Archives early, despite the fact Jon feels like an animal in a cage, stuck in his flat, unable to get closure and prone to severe bouts of paranoia, his mind reeling over everything that has happened, everything that could happen, and the persistent feeling that someone… something is somehow still watching him…
When the knock at the door comes, it’s almost a relief; right until Jon opens the door, and Martin Blackwood smiles at him that same sweet smile of his, holding out a hand to shake:
“Hi,” he says. “It’s nice to see you again. I don’t think I introduced myself last time? I’m very sorry. I thought, well - I really thought at first you were going to be dead soon enough? I’m Martin.”
Jon opens his mouth, then thinks better of it; there’s a nervous, wrecked laughter bubbling in his throat when he instinctively shuts the door closed, right on Martin’s nose, his bandaged hand trembling as he turns the key in the lock. He lets his head fall against the doorframe, and tries to breathe. It smells musky and heavy, like it used to in his childhood’s backyard after a storm.
“I really don’t mean to intrude,” says Martin, sounding almost sorry, from behind him. “Although you could have been a bit more polite, you know?”
When Jon turns around, Martin is standing merely a foot away from him; everything around them has shrunk, and Jon thinks hysterically it’s quite good luck that Martin is taller and larger than him. He tries to hold on to the door handle behind him. It disappears. Martin keeps on smiling.
“You don’t have to worry,” he says. “I’m not here to kill you.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Jon retorts sarcastically.
“I could, ” Martin points out, and the space between them reduces, though neither of them has moved. He towers above him, watching him with kind, curious, thoughtful eyes. “There’s even more pressure than before, isn’t there? You feel trapped.” he grins. “I know the feeling. Do you want to talk about it?”
“What do you want?” Jon manages to ask.
“Oh,” Martin blinks. “Oh, uh - right. Well, really, I don’t know? I think we should be striving for revenge, maybe? Only, it’s not like we’ve got the power to get to the Institute anymore, and well, fear alliances - they only go so far, I guess. I wanted to see you anyway, or, well, It did, and then I recognized you! I let you go once.”
“...Right,” says Jon, and stiffens when Martin’s hands come to rest on his shoulders. They’re warm; heavy; he wishes he could run, but there’s nowhere to escape to; his heart is pounding in his chest.
“I think you’d like it, in the earth,” Martin tells him with a very kind voice. “There are no threats down there, only the slow crushing of the dirt.” His hand moves down, presses against Jon’s chest and he leans in, ever so slightly. Jon’s breath hitches. “See?” and then, sweetly: “Of course you don’t; you don’t see, because you can’t think about anything else but what would happen, if the walls came just a little bit closer - if I decided to leave, give you a little less space -”
“You said -” It’s hard to speak, but Jon persists. “You said you didn’t want to kill me.”
Martin’s eyebrows raise quizzically, but he moves away, ever so slightly, letting his fingers fall at his side once more. “You wouldn’t need to be dead?” he replies, and that’s the most chilling thing Jon’s heard in his life since knock knock.
“Just - tell me what you want,” he whispers, his throat tight.
“It wanted to see you,” Martin repeats. “Gertrude Robinson was a threat, but I don’t think you are. Not to us, at least.”
“I - What do you mean, about Gertrude…?”
Martin shrugs with an apologetic smile. “Nothing, really - I mean, well, no, I can feel you want to know things about her that I know, but, well. That would lift a weight off your shoulders, wouldn’t it?”
“ Yes, ” says Jon.
“Then I can’t tell you,” he points out. His grin is still sheepish.
“I -” Jon begins, but he’s at lost for words, utterly out of his depth, and he’s acutely, dangerously aware that there’s nothing he can do, right now. He is trapped. His heart is in throat and he just waits, his morbid curiosity wondering what Martin is going to do next, his panicked brain wishing, absurdly, that he had a tape recorder on hand -
Martin’s eyes flutter; his cheeks are a little pink. “You really are - uh, well. Anyway. It was a - a pleasure to meet you, that is, officially, Archivist. I should go, now, or I might just - I should go,” he repeats.
He raises his hand, and Jon flinches; a moment later, he’s falling on the ground - the corridor is empty and vast and Martin’s gone, and it feels like there’s so much air in the room abruptly that he gets dizzy from it. His skin still buzzing with the tingling feeling of Martin’s warm fingers brushing against his face. He tries to shake it off, and dried, dead flowers petals fall on his shoulders.
“Jon,” says Melanie, a hint of genuine concern peeking through her flat voice. “Your office.”
“Uh?” Jon looks around; he’s been staring at the coffin for a while, pondering, wishing, hesitating, and he only realizes now that his desk has sunk on the ground, and that he’s leaning between the wall and the bookcase. Melanie’s not inside, but her feet are against the coffin. “Oh. Right. It’s, er - nothing to worry about, I swear -”
“Is that the coffin?” she still asks. “Or is that you and your creepy new powers?”
“Neither,” says Jon, and, because he’s trying very hard to be honest these days, and Melanie at the very least seems more open to it than Basira, he adds: “I think Martin is sending a, a message, whatever that is.”
“Am I supposed to know who Martin is?”
Jon’s cheeks turn a bit pink, even as his heart sinks, ever so slightly; he can still hear Tim’s voice, not kind, certainly, it was already too late for that, but intrigued, perhaps even amused. He can still see Georgie’s raised eyebrows and her incredulous, if slightly worried smile.
“He’s… He’s a friend,” Jon settles on. “Well, I hope he still is. One of the Buried, actually.”
“And so, what -” Melanie asks, sceptical. “He’s the reason your office is a cupboard?”
“I,” there’s no way to hide the way his face is burning, now, probably. “I think it’s a way of showing affection.” he says, not looking at her directly.
Behind him, the wall is softer; Jon knows that if he were to lean deeper, the wall would melt around him, welcoming him, and he might be able to sink into it, and it’s -
“That’s creepy as hell, Jon” Melanie tells him.
The door closes on her, abruptly, and Jon’s suddenly trapped between the coffin and the wall. He could sink, he thinks. He could let his head fall back. Instead, he murmurs:
“She doesn’t know, Martin,” a little reprovingly. A few books fall on his lap as the bookcase apparently crumbles in on itself, the ceiling brushing against Jon’s hair. He closes his eyes, and leans his cheek against the wall. “Can’t you just -” he starts to ask, but he knows. A moment later, the office is almost back to normal, and Melanie is pounding on the door.
“It’s fine,” he calls out, and hopes his voice is not shaking as he slowly, reluctantly pushes himself off the floor. “It’s all fine, Melanie, you can come in.”
“Do you want to get buried?” asks someone next to Jon, his voice curious and sweet.
Jon screams - he’s not proud of it - and lets the flashlight fall on the ground, though he keeps a tight grip on the tape recorder in his hand. He turns around anyway, instinctively raising an arm in defense, and meets a wall - or he thinks he does, until the wall melts into something soft like a stomach, and it bends over, hair brushing against Jon’s sweater, to pick up the flashlight, handing it back to him. The light flickers on and off. Jon stares at Martin Blackwood’s face, as terrifyingly friendly as it was two weeks ago in his flat.
“I, I - do you -” Jon wishes he could breathe something else other than dust particles. “ What are you doing here?”
“I belong here as much as anywhere else,” Martin shrugs. “It’s a bit damp, but the spiders are lovely.”
“Spiders,” Jon repeats faintly.
“It’s a nice place to be entombed, I guess? You looked kind of scared about it before, but I mean, you’re here so --”
“Jesus, no I - I don’t want to be entombed .”
“Oh,” Martin says. He sounds, to Jon’s utter horror and bafflement, a bit disappointed about it. “Well, what brings you down here, then? Shouldn’t you be resting? You had bandages last time.”
“I’m fine, ” Jon retorts, and then, “I’m - exploring.”
“Ah.” the light turns off for good. Jon’s heart misses a beat. “Well, maybe you should, uh - go back up, maybe?” The smell of wet soil rises to Jon’s nose, as Martin leans in, pressing against him, heavy and warm. “I’m not the only one down here, you see?” he whispers gently.
Jon turns blindly to his left; he’s pretty sure that’s where the stairs were, a moment ago. But as he does so, it feels like Martin follows him - or is it Martin? It feels like walls are pressing everywhere around him, warm and malleable, embracing him tighter and tighter -
“Please, Martin,” he says, hating the way his voice is merely a trembling whisper.
There are warm fingers, wrapping up around his hand.
“Sorry,” says Martin, sounding a bit embarrassed. “I’ll show you up. Try to rest a bit more though, will you? You can carry more on your shoulders if your body is well-rested.”
“For heaven’s sake,” Melanie says.
They’re a bit cramped, in Jon’s office. The desk hasn’t reappeared, which is a bit annoying, but at least it does allow the three of them to be in there, though barely. Helen looks a bit put out, and there are several doors that shouldn’t be here popping in and out of existence. Melanie is leaning against one of them, her shoulder brushing against Helen’s. Jon, on the other side, listens to the coffin sing. The song is - lovely.
“ Jon .” Jon looks up. Melanie’s brows are furrowed, and her leg is moving restlessly. “You look entranced by that thing. You sure of what you’re doing?”
“Ah,” Jon snorts. “No, I suppose I’m not. But I don’t think we should waste anymore time waiting either.”
“I won’t be able to open a door for you down there, Archivist,” says Helen.
“Right, well, I didn’t think you would, it’s alright, Helen,” he breathes out. “If you two would just - I don’t expect you to wait, but If I’m not back, nor Daisy, in… In a few days, perhaps… Perhaps let Lukas know a new Archivist is needed.”
“Are you trying to joke right now?” Melanie asks. “About your potential death? ”
“I never claimed to be much of a comedian,” Jon points out with an awkward smile.
Melanie looks like she might very well jump over the coffin to strangle him. He clears his throat, and, very gently, brushes the dried flower petals that appeared this morning on the coffin lid. An invitation.
“I’ll be fine,” he says, more softly. “I’m going to bring Daisy back. Just be prepared for her, alright? She might - I doubt being in there for six months did much good to her.”
“You don’t say,” Melanie mutters.
She doesn’t insist that it’s stupid, or that Jon shouldn’t do it. Her lips are tight, and her hand grips Helen’s hip, but she doesn’t say be careful either. Jon nods all the same, and a beat too late, it’s Helen who nods back. Then he takes a deep breath, and he opens the coffin.
There are flowers, in Jon’s bedroom, one morning. Wild flowers, sprouting off the ground, the walls, the furniture. Petals brush against his mattress, his blanket, his pillows, his cheek. The smell is so deep, so rich, that he sneezes a few times, and has to take several mouthfuls of air through his mouth.
“Martin?” he calls out, after a few minutes of staring blearily at the wild garden his room has become. “Is - is that you?”
Underneath him, the bed gives in; he falls with a yelp, and, for a whole minute, he’s engulfed in a flowery cocoon. He pushes them away almost violently, his brain frozen in panic, and then he is up, and there are no flowers left, apart from a small faltered primrose near the door.
He doesn’t know what to do with it. He has no idea what game Martin is playing at. He grabs the flower, twists it in his hand for a good while, and, in the end, presses it between the pages of the book he’s currently reading. Throwing it out, he reflects, might be taken as an insult.
The stairs are slippery, so Jon goes down very slowly. His light flickers sooner than he expected, but it’s alright. If he is scared of anything, he thinks, it’s of how unafraid he is. There is comfort in the tight walls brushing against his shoulders, the strong smell of Earth, and the occasional flower, which by all accounts, should not be able to grow at all here. There’s - familiarity. He breathes in, and lets his hand brush against a few of them. He could swear they shiver under his fingers.
“You’re kind of exceptional, you know,” and Jon startles hard and then hisses, hot tea falling on his knee. “Oh, oh, sorry,” says Martin. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You could just knock ,” Jon snaps.
“Last time I did that, you closed the door on me,” Martin points out. “Let me help you with that.”
He gently takes the warm cup of tea out of Jon’s hands and places it on the table next to them. Jon nervously looks around. His kitchen is suddenly so small he wonders how all his furniture is still fitting in there; it doesn’t make sense. But then again, what does, in his life, these days? What’s another dangerous, horrible thing going to do? If anything, Martin Blackwood has proved himself not to be an immediate threat, compared to - to Michael, or, hell, Gertrude’s killer, whoever that is (everyone, his mind whispers, it could be everyone, something is wrong, and you know it, something is wrong -)
“You are so tense,” Martin tells him gently. “In over your head, are you?”
“Can you pretend you’re not enjoying this?” Jon mutters.
Martin scratches his head. Dirt falls at his feet. “I’ve never been a very good liar, sorry,” he tells Jon with an apologetic grimace. “And you carry so much… Like I said, it’s quite incredible, you’re not, you know, crumbling yet?”
Jon lets out a small, hysterical laughter. “Feels like I am, actually.”
Martin nods very kindly, and hands him another tea cup filled to the brim. “I can listen, if you wish. I’m good at that, if anything.”
Jon doesn’t know why he does it; only by the time he’s done, he’s pressed between his kitchen countertop and Martin, his kitchen reduced to the size of his bedroom’s wardrobe. He’s a little warm, and he’s drank all his tea, and there’s the salty smell of freshly wet sand everywhere in the room. None of his worries have subsided; if anything, he feels even more aware of it all, crushed by the unnerving thought that everyone outside of here might be out for his blood. But they’re not here, right now. There’s nobody , right now, apart from Martin, and his sweet, dangerous smile, that doesn’t seem to frighten Jon so much anymore.
It’s sand next. Jon only knows because it itches a bit, and it’s more difficult to go forward - he thinks he’s going forward - as his light died down completely sometime ago. His feet sink into the ground, and each step demands more effort than the last. He thinks he can hear water, or perhaps it’s the song, that keeps calling him deeper and deeper and deeper. His mind is a bit hazy, by now; he thinks of Helen and Melanie, up there, of Basira, and even Georgie, but they feel like distant memories. What is up exactly? It’s down he must go. Down there, there’s… Daisy.
Down there, he knows, there’s Martin.
“I have a name, you know,” he tells Martin at last, two or three encounters later, because there’s an uncomfortable, right feeling that washes over him every time Martin says Archivist.
“Have you?” Martin says; his own tea cup is filled with dirt that he sips just as easily as Jon does his drink. “You never told me.”
Jon stares at him, unimpressed.
“Are you telling me you knew my personal address and haven’t come across my name ?”
Martin’s cheeks get very pink. “I mean, yeah, of course, I did, ” he says, a bit defensively. “Only you never properly introduced yourself to me, and I didn’t want to come off too creepy, using your name anyway.”
Jon blinks, and then pointedly looks around them. His flat is a perfect cube without windows or doors, his couch the only piece of furniture left, a few pillows awkwardly smashed against the walls.
“Oh come on,” says Martin. “You know what I mean. Creepy in a non spooky way, you know. It just - it just didn’t seem polite, and I try very hard to be.”
“Right,” Jon says, trying very hard not to feel endeared. “I know you do.”
Martin smiles. The couch shrinks a bit more, and their legs press against each other. Jon doesn’t lean in, but he doesn’t protest when Martin does it either.
“Thank you, Jon ,” he tells him.
It feels a thousand times better than Archivist .
The water is cold, and it’s rising every time Jon moves. He has to keep moving, though. He’s not sure how he’s moving, or in which direction, but the water current seems to guide him, anyway. To M - To Daisy. He must reach Daisy. There is a voice, he thinks, deep and smooth and so far away, calling his title. It is a voice he hates, and a voice he misses. It’s up. Wherever up is. It pulls at him, surprisingly strong, but the song is stronger.
The water reaches his shoulders, cold, pressing hard against every inch of his skin, but he knows he won’t drown. He has to find Daisy. He has to find Martin.
If there is one thing he’s sure of, it’s that Martin won’t let him die.
“You’ll be okay for tonight?” Georgie asks.
“Yes,” Jon says. “I - thank you, Georgie,” he adds, awkwardly. “For - for this.”
“Don’t think about it,” she tells him, and squeezes his hand. He squeezes back, a bit stiff, but genuine. “Good night, Jon.”
“Good night,” he says after her, and watches her disappear into her own bedroom before turning towards the guest room and opening the door.
It’s exceedingly dark inside. He tries to find the light switch, taking a few steps in, and merely hits a wall instead. Behind him, the door shuts closed almost violently. He takes a sharp breath. Usually, Martin waits until the both of them are inside, lets Jon get distracted by conversation before shrinking the walls. Usually, Martin is willing to let the light on.
“Martin?” he calls, voice raspy and careful.
“Who is she, even?” Martin asks, and Jon could swear it’s pouty. “You said you didn’t have any friends.”
“She’s - she’s an old friend,” he says after a moment. “I… I hadn’t seen her in a long time, but - but I needed a place to stay and she’s - well at least she’s not…”
“A monster?” Martin finishes, almost cold.
“ Involved, ” Jon corrects him, sharply. He’s starting to get use to the dark, oppressive place, though he wishes he could feel Martin here, properly, and not just the smell of rancid mud. “I don’t think you get to be the one to be mad, as a matter of fact. Did you know? About Elias, and Gertrude, and - and everything?”
“... A bit,” Martin says after a few seconds of silence. “I haven’t really - pried into the Institute’s affairs since I stopped working there.”
“Since you -” Jon chokes on nothing, hands curling into fists. “Christ, Martin, what - what do I even know about you, have you even ever thought of telling me anything relevant about yourself?”
“I told you about my mum,” Martin says. “And, and the poetry!”
Jon itches to say that’s not what he means by relevant. He thinks it might be insulting, however, so he stays silent - but that doesn’t seem to stop Martin from getting it, because the walls shrink even more, and Jon’s breath catches in his throat as the front wall brushes against his nose, trying very, very hard not to panic.
“You didn’t tell me anything much, either,” says Martin. “You certainly didn’t tell me about Georgie. ”
“I hadn’t seen her in years!” Jon exclaims, exasperated.
“But you still went to her !” Martin retorts.
Silence stretches out; Jon closes his eyes, because it’s easier, and then he starts to chuckle, despite nothing, absolutely nothing being funny and everything being wrong and terrifying. He lets his forehead gently fall against the wall, and he says:
“Well, I thought about you first, but it’s not like I know where to join you, or where you live, if you even have a place at all or you, you just - sleep outside in the dirt…”
“Oh,” Martin says, and has the decency to sound a bit sheepish. Then, softer, gentler, he repeats, “Oh, Jon.” and then, the wall is suddenly Martin’s sweater, and Jon’s face is squished against Martin’s chest, and Martin is hugging him, enveloping him entirely, and Jon feels like he can’t breathe, surrounded by warmth and dark and the powerful smell of rich soil, but he lets himself sink deeper against Martin, and doesn’t know when he starts to cry.
The rocks hurt the most; they dig into Jon’s skin, as he crawls - down, down, it has to be down. He has lost the flashlight which didn’t work, and he has lost the tape recorder as well. He keeps moving, fleeting disgruntled thoughts of not being able to record his own experience anymore keeping him somewhat grounded, though he can’t remember exactly why it’s so important to record anyway, just that it’s a need and that he must not stop registering everything that’s happening in here.
Even this is distant, though; the song is loud, inviting, sweet. He follows down the melody, because he knows that he’s going to be able to reach Martin. And Daisy, of course. He went down for Daisy.
Rock turns into mud, which turns into dirt, which turns into sand, which turns into water, which turns into rock again, until suddenly, there’s a growl, a pitiful, angry, mad, satisfied growl, and someone jumps on him abruptly. His head hits something that sounds hollow; it smells like old, mouldy wood.
Right, he thinks, a bit deliriously. Right, he’s in a coffin. And so is Daisy, who stands above him, her nails digging into his shoulders, her voice a low, raspy whisper which keeps on repeating the same word, over and over: prey.
“Daisy,” he gasps, and she leans over him, and bites down at his throat. He yells. “Daisy!” he repeats, heart beating hard in his chest. “It’s Jon, I’m - I’m here to - to - get you up.”
Daisy snarls there is no up and Jon thinks maybe she’s not wrong, except she is, he knows she is, she’s telling a lie and he knows this because he’s the Archivist, and he deals in truth. He tries to push her away from him, weakly, and she only barks a mad, loud laugh, and mutters again prey, my prey -
“There is an up,” he says. “I - Basira,” he tells her, and right, that’s it, that’s what’s up - Basira, and Melanie, and Helen, and, god, Georgie, too, and though it burns to admit it, Elias as well. “Basira is up,” he continues, because Daisy doesn’t care about anyone else. “Basira is waiting for you, up there, Daisy. You need - I know you can find your way up. To Basira.”
“Basira,” repeats Daisy. Her hands are suddenly very still on Jon’s shoulders. “She - she’s not prey.”
“But you can hunt for her,” Jon says. He concentrates, tries to make out Daisy’s face in the darkness, and then, he lets his power run off his tongue: “Do you know where Basira is, Daisy? Can you feel the way to her?”
“I know where she is,” says Daisy immediately, and then stiffens. “How - I -”
“Follow the knowledge,” Jon tells her, and though he has no way to know whether this might work, because he is in the business of taking rather than offering, he digs into Daisy’s mind and pulls until the image is at the forefront of her thoughts; Basira, young and careful and eager to prove herself; Basira, laughing; Basira, worried; Basira, reading; Basira, squeezing their hand, saying I trust you, Alice, Basira, leaning in for a -
“Not that, not that ,” Daisy snaps, and she punches Jon in the face. “I’ll kill you for that -”
Jon lets out of short, strangled, breathless laughter. “There’s no need. I’m here already, aren’t I? Go, Daisy. Basira is - Basira is up.”
He can see she struggles; her instinct is still to tear his throat out first. He is prey, and Basira isn’t. But she hasn’t hunted for Jon, not properly, and there would be nothing satisfying about killing him now. Is it her thoughts, or Jon’s? How can he properly tell? All he knows is that, eventually, she gets off his chest, and she’s holding on tightly to Basira’s face, floating in front of her eyes. She scratches at the wood that turns into dirt against her palm, and she takes a shaky, hopeful, angry breath, and scratches harder, and harder, and crawls away from Jon, who stares at the darkness above his head.
He could follow her, he thinks. It would be the sensible thing to do; she’s got an anchor pulling her up. He knows, with vivid clarity, that his only anchor is right here. He stays down. Breathes in the smell of earth, of the wood, of the dirt, of dried flower petals. The ground moves, or maybe he sinks into it.
“Martin,” he murmurs.
A warm nose brushes against his.
“Hi, Jon,” Martin says, sweet as ever.
“Oh, Jon,” says Martin, and he looks horrified, his warm hands brushing against Jon’s too soft cheeks.
Jon shudders, sick and exhausted and trembling, drinks him in, wonders if this is a trick of his own mind. He’s been seeing phantom faces for a while now, but none of them have felt as real as Martin does right now. Martin babbles, but it’s hard to concentrate on what he says, so Jon closes his eyes, and listens only to the sweet cadence of his words, and hopes that this is real, despite his best efforts.
“Stay with me, Jon,” Martin murmurs. “Stay with me, I’m here to get you out of their hands.”
“I -” Jon’s mouth is dry. He realizes, just a beat too late, that his wrists and ankles are free from the ropes, and that he is standing upright, leaning against Martin’s soft, warm body. “I can’t -”
“Right,” Martin says, clearly distressed. “Right, I can’t carry you and work the earth, Jon. I need, we need you to walk - I… Elias said, that you might be -” at the mention of Elias, Jon shudders violently. The heart. My watcher. “Right,” Martin says again. “He said, he said you might need - Okay. Okay, Jon? Look at me. I’m - I’m going to give you my statement, alright? Would - would you like to hear the story? My story? I know I’ve been shy about it, but it was because I was a bit embarrassed by how - I was kind of an idiot, before, when I was young? And I kind of wanted - would my statement make you feel better?”
“Yes,” Jon says unthinkingly. “Yes, please.”
“Okay,” Martin says, gently. “Fine. Let’s just - let’s just sit.” He very carefully helps Jon to the ground, his hands a grounding, comforting, human point against Jon’s back, and then he clears his throat and says: “Statement of Martin Blackwood, concerning the garden that swallowed him… Is that a good enough title?”
“Tell me,” Jon only answers, letting his head falls on Martin’s shoulder.
Martin does; he rambles a bit about his mum, first - Jon knows that part - before moving to how he got hired at the Institute, as an archival assistant for Gertrude Robinson. He tells him that he wanted badly to impress her; that he wanted to do good; that he didn’t get why she was so obsessed with the weird statements, especially the ones about caves and coffins and holes, but at some point, it became the only thing they were all sent to investigate. He tells him how pretty the garden had been, how enchanting; how he’d never even realized that it was closing up on him; that he’d only started to panic when the dirt had reached his knees. He says, with a curious chuckle: “it’s funny, because I used to be a bit scared of enclosed spaces, you know? But that seems absurd now. There were so many flowers, Jon, the day I died. It was beautiful.”
He tells him about dying, and Jon feels energy running through his bones, just as he knows , intimately, the fear and horror and peace that came as Martin Blackwood’s last scream was swallowed by dried flower petals falling into his open mouth. When Martin is done, Jon’s mind is clearer and he takes long, deep breaths, not moving away from him.
“I’m sorry,” he tells Martin, eventually.
“Why?” Martin asks, looking a bit surprised. “I’m quite happy, Jon. Besides,” he adds, his voice sweet and thoughtful, “If the earth hadn’t taken me, I wouldn’t have been able to save you today.”
“I -” Jon’s eyes flutter. “Right. I - thank you. For coming.”
“Of course,” Martin says, and squeezes his hand very gently. “Do you think you can walk now? I am going to lead you away.”
“Yes.” Jon swallows. “Yes, I feel better. Let’s go. Please.”
Martin only nods; Jon expects them to get up again, but of course that’s idiotic, and he realizes it a moment later as he falls through a tight hole in the ground that closes off above his head as if it had never been there a moment after, leaving him in complete darkness. Martin’s gone. Jon tries not to panic, and mostly succeeds, though he painfully gets back on his feet, and blindly takes in his surroundings by letting his hands run against the walls. He is surrounded by dried dirt and rocks, from everywhere he moves, and his breath quickens, right until dirt gives in gently under his hands as he turns left.
He hesitantly takes a step, and when he doesn’t meet more dirt, he goes a bit more confidently. Martin doesn’t give any directions, just opens and closes tight passages for Jon to awkwardly go through. The air is stalled, heavy, dusty, and Jon has to concentrate on taking short, deep breaths, hoping that they’ll manage to get through the surface soon enough, eager to feel even just a breeze of fresh air on his face. He doesn’t know how long he walks in complete silence, trusting Martin to lead him, but eventually, his hands reach a wall that doesn’t melt. He stiffens, turns, tries another side, but it doesn’t move either.
“Martin?” he calls at last. He swallows dust and coughs. “Martin!”
Behind him, the earth moves; not to give way, though; it gently, steadily wraps around his arms and his legs. Jon feels faint.
“Martin!” he chokes again.
He is trapped. He cannot move, he is trapped again , the earth is closing back on him, and he remembers Martin’s death, and wants to scream but before he can, Martin is suddenly here again.
“I had a thought,” he says, a bit eager, always so gentle, his fingers brushing against Jon’s face. “I was so worried, Jon.”
“What - what are you doing -” Jon manages to ask.
“They won’t be able to find you again here,” Martin says. “If I keep you here, you’ll be safe.”
A cold, terrifying shiver ran down Jon’s spine. “Martin -”
“I know,” Martin murmurs, and his face is so very close now, Jon can feel his warm breath against his lips. It is a terrible time, he thinks, his mind fried with terror, to wonder about kissing. “I know it’s a scary thought for you, but it’ll only be for a little bit. You can get used to it all, and I’ll make such a tight, safe corner for you, Jon, I promise -”
Jon’s hands are numb; they’re buried in dirt and when he tries to move them, he finds that the pressure won’t break. His blood pulses at his temples, and he tries again to say Martin’s name; he needs - he needs air, he needs to move, but he can’t, because when there isn’t dirt there is Martin, and it might as well be the same thing.
“Let me keep you safe,” Martin pleads sweetly. “Let me take the weight off of your shoulders, Jon.”
“I don’t -” Jon tries to say. God, there is dirt falling all over his face. “Martin, I don’t want to, to - the Eye -”
“ -Is not protecting you as it should,” Martin says, surprisingly fierce and angry, suddenly, though he softens immediately after, and Jon feels his lips brush against the corner of his mouth. “I need you safe,” he insists.
“What about happy?” he tries out. “I won’t - I can’t be happy down here, Martin.”
Martin flinches away. Jon feels dizzy, takes a great gulp of air, coughs more dust instead.
“I’ll be happy at the Institute,” he keeps going anyway. “I’m - that’s where I belong.” And it’s true, he knows it, deep in his mind, his bones, his soul. “That’s where I belong.” he repeats, and it’s a terrible and relieving feeling to say it out loud.
“It’s a dangerous place,” Martin says, but he sounds sad, resigned.
“It’s mine all the same,” Jon tells him.
Martin’s fingers are back on his cheeks. They’re gentle, as light as they can be. Jon licks his lips, and isn’t surprised when, a second later, Martin’s mouth finds his. Jon hasn’t kissed anyone since Georgie, but Martin doesn’t seem to mind; he presses his lips against his several times, a little bit harder each time, and Jon finds himself tasting soil, soft and a little bit wet, falling against his tongue, the smell of rich, fertile earth running through his nostrils, and he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe at all, and he can’t grip Martin’s arm like he’d wish, and his heart and mind scream at once for oxygen, for movement , but Martin swallows his words as well.
When he wakes up, he is in bed, and the moon shines softly through open windows. He sits up, panicked and breathing too long and too much to the point of getting light headed again, and it takes him almost two or three minutes to realize he’s at Georgie’s. It’s so - so mundane, and absurd, after a month kept captive in a basement, after being - being -
“Jon?” Martin murmurs behind him, almost hesitant.
Jon startles hard. Martin is in the bed, too. Was he already in the bed a moment ago?
“I - what - what happened?” he asks, the compulsion inescapable.
“You fainted and I brought you back to the surface,” Martin answers, then blinks a few times. “I’m… You were right, I suppose.” He looks a bit unhappy. “I can’t keep you with me. You don’t belong to us.”
Jon stares at him a long time. What seems a moment ago, Martin’s sweetness was suddenly as scary as Nikola’s taunts. Scarier? But Jon is a fool; he probably doesn’t know what’s best for him - god knows Elias has berated him several times already about his - choices of friends. But screw Elias. He lays back slowly next to Martin and, very carefully, he brushes his lips against his.
It feels like kissing a flower.
“It’s not about belonging,” he tells Martin, and Martin smiles his beautiful, sweet smile of his, before kissing him again.
Martin’s kiss is gentle but eager, and Jon cannot begrudge him, when he grasps his sweater tightly, trying to pull him closer to him. They kiss for a long time, until Jon can barely remember ever tasting anything else than soft dirt. Then, Martin start to press soft kisses on his cheeks, his nose, his forehead, and Jon says:
“You haven’t been here.”
And he’s surprised to find he’s - perhaps a bit angry.
“I know,” Martin says, sounding apologetic and sad. “I, well - at first I was, you know. I brought you flowers. But I couldn’t reach you where you were and it - it hurt. ”
“I’ve been awake for a while, though.”
“And the Institute has been taken over by Lukas,” Martin mutters. His grip on Jon gets tighter. Around them, the coffin shrinks. Jon forces himself to breathe softly. “He’s - have I ever told you? I met him, once, long ago. I think - I think he wanted - well, no matter, the earth got me.” There’s odd relief in Martin’s voice. “He works with the Fairchilds,” he continues after a beat of silence. “The Institute has become very - disagreeable. It’s been hard to reach you. All those empty, huge spaces, everywhere - and you’ve never really left since you’ve been back.”
“Still,” Jon mumbles.
“Still,” agrees Martin, and kisses him again. “I’m sorry. I wanted to. I’ve been - trying to be useful, for you. Been working a bit with the spiders. They like you, you know?”
“I don’t care about the spiders.”
“You should,” Martin says, but he brushes his lips again on Jon’s skin, like he can’t stop doing it, and then he murmurs: “I was trying to come in, subtly, but it became much easier, once that - person brought the coffin in. It’s such a lovely place, Jon. I’ve been in here for a little while. You could have come sooner, I know you’d understood.”
“I had,” Jon admits. The coffin is so tight, now, that Martin’s entire body presses down on him, and it makes him a bit light-headed. “I was -”
“Worried,” he whispers. “I was needed, above. Or I thought I was. But now, Melanie is - well. She’s strong. And Basira has plans. And Daisy - Daisy’s out, isn’t she?”
“Mmh,” says Martin. “The coffin has eaten most of her, it’s happy for a - new meal.”
“Right.” Jon wants to laugh, but it’s getting hard to breathe properly. He blinks into the darkness, and isn’t surprised when Martin keeps going:
“It already likes you, you know.” He pecks Jon’s mouth, again, and again, and again. “The earth loves you.” Another kiss, lingering, that tastes like flowers. “I love you.”
“I know,” says Jon; his hand is still holding Martin’s shoulder. His knuckles also brush over the edge of the coffin, which is, all at once, dirt and sand and rocks and wood. “I love you too.”
“If I -” Martin hesitates. “Would you stay here with me, Jon?”
Jon thinks of up. “Yes,” he tells Martin, and is rather glad that Helen isn’t here to talk about truths hiding lies - or perhaps it’s the other way around.
“You’d starve, eventually,” Martin murmurs. “Like the hunter without a prey. I don’t have enough stories for you.”
“I know,” repeats Jon.
For a moment, they stay silent. Then, Martin brushes dirt off Jon’s hair, and he says: “Just for a little while.” Determinedly. Sweetly. “Just for a little while.”
And he’s kissing him again as every empty space left slowly fills with impossible flowers and soft, wet soil.
“Can’t we just get rid of it, now that Daisy’s out?” asks Melanie.
“No,” Jon tells her.
“It’s dangerous,” says Basira. “It might lure someone else in it at any moment -”
“It’s addressed to me, not to anybody else,” Jon points out.
“... And you barely got out last time ,” Melanie tells him, a bit exasperated.
Jon sighs. “Melanie - It’s. It’s fine, alright? The coffin won’t - it’s as safe to me as Helen’s corridors are to you.”
Melanie flushes; then she stares at the coffin, and back at Jon. “Oh that’s just gross. ”
“What -” begins Jon, and then he knows and flushes as well - “Not like that -”
“Whatever! I don’t want to know!” Melanie tells him, throwing up her hands in the air. “I’m out of this discussion.”
She leaves Jon’s office without another word; Jon clears his throat, and looks back at Basira, who offers him a levelled, cool, practical look. “You sure about him?” she asks.
He doesn’t ask her how she knows. “Positively certain,” he tells her calmly.
“Fine. If anything, it won’t hurt to have more allies. See you, Jon.”
“Bye, Basira,” he tells her more softly.
As soon as she is gone, the room shrinks, until Jon’s legs hit the coffin, and he breathes just a little bit easier. He leans his forehead against the wall, against Martin’s chest; Martin holds him tight, and Jon buries his head into his neck.
“There’s so much on your shoulders, Jon,” Martin says.
“It’s alright,” Jon replies, voice muffled against his skin. “I can just tell you about it.”
He doesn’t need to see to know that Martin is smiling sweetly.