Of course, there's nothing Martin can do about the harassment complaint, not until Jon gets back from... saving the world again, presumably. He fills in the right forms, adding in the margins his best attempts to explain it all, and lodges it with HR, and all the while a tiny part of him wishes he could just Know who the complainant actually was. Name and phone number at least would be nice. To follow up on it.
Four days later, Martin wakes to a text from Jon that simply reads “Best wishes”. With nothing even planned for his Saturday, he loses his mind for about six hours until the follow-up text arrives – it just reads, “Done” – and Martin is so relieved that he can't find it in himself to be suspicious that Jon is texting him again, as he hasn't done since before Jane Prentiss, as no one has seemed willing or able to do since he took up with Peter Lukas. He hopes against hope that the texts aren't coming from some eldritch being, or a husk of the archivist hollowed out and refilled again with shadows and brackish, endlessly dark water. He contemplates visiting Elias for answers, but knows that of course he wouldn't get any, or certainly not the ones he wants; so instead, he just goes to the near-empty Institute, swiping his key card and passing the empty reception desk to potter about in the office next to Peter's (as if he's ever there) and try to distract himself.
An hour later, he hears Daisy's involuntary yelp from two floors away. He's out of his office before his tea has finished spilling and his chair clattered to the floor, and out of breath before he dashes down the fire stairs.
Down in the basement hallway, where the walls are a dirty white and the lighting far too plentiful for buzzing fluorescents, Martin arrives just as Helen's too-sharp fingers pull her door shut behind her as it disappears into the wall, which makes him feel something complicated. Jon and Basira both look like shit, carrying armfuls of puffy jackets and gloves, as Daisy throws her arms around Basira's neck and ushers them towards the little break room. Basira's hijab is crumpled and askew, her sleeves torn, and there is a faint tremor in her hands, either from trauma or sleep deprivation (or both). She is muttering something about making a statement.
That just leaves Jonathan in front of the archive doors, glasses missing, tweed and fur-lined jackets dangling from his fingertips and bag strap slung over bony shoulders. His rumpled shirt seems to hang off his skinny, pockmarked body, and there's dirt streaked on his trousers and palms. He looks over as Martin enters, all eye-bags and sunken cheeks, and it's as if, of all the many, heavy weights hanging off him, one of the smaller ones has been lifted away, and his breath sighs out of him. Martin wonders how, if he's so near-sighted, he can even see who's standing at the bottom of the stairs.
“Jon, get in here, you're having some too!”
Martin only gets as far as opening his mouth, possibly to speak, before Jon has turned away, heeding Daisy's call and the sound of the coffee tin opening. Peter has told him time and again that he must embrace Forsaken, that the plan relies on his not talking to the others, and Martin believes it, has dedicated himself to the idea; but that decision was a lot easier when he thought Jon was dead, when he was incompetently grieving for his mum, when everything was going to hell in a handbasket and there was nothing he could do about it. Now, seeing him again after probable mortal and possibly immortal danger...
Jon's narrow shoulders disappear into the break room, and Martin can't hear the sound of the kettle boiling.
Half an hour later, the four of them plus Melanie are all piled into Jon's little office to hear the story. There's a tape recorder already running when they sit on chairs and desks and the sofa at the back, because of course there's a sofa in Jon's office, why bother with the panic room anymore? Strange, how such things so calmly stopped being strange. Martin perches on a filing cabinet in the corner that somehow isn't covered in papers, and stays silent enough that no one notices him for more than a passing glance, wondering if they forget he's there when they're not looking at him. Jon is the only one facing him, but he's focused on Basira and the hissing tape, and has no time for the ghost in the corner as he recounts the journey, and Manuela's statement, and the death of the dark sun through sheer mule-headedness. Martin supposes that, if the Extinction really is the threat that Peter says it is, they might have a chance after all with Jon like this.
But no. Best not to think like that. Martin has already decided that no one else is going to risk their neck for this particular horror, after all. And Jon's almost certainly run out of miracles: already, despite the taking and making of statements, the experience has left him haggard and worn far beyond the surface.
Daisy takes Basira home, like the sensible people they are, while Jon – absurdity incarnate – insists that he has work to do, though his voice cracks when he says it. Even Melanie gives up on trying to convince him otherwise, and goes back to her research, while Martin... Well. To his own shame, he doesn't do anything either, and even he can't tell if it's because he agrees that there's no point arguing with a self-destructive Archivist, or because he'd rather have Jon where he can – conceivably, if he wants to, if he puts in the effort and ignores his misgivings and disobeys Peter's not-an-orders and takes the stairs back down – see him. If he concentrates, Martin can just about convince himself that from his office he can hear the distant murmur of Jon's work. Logically, of course, it's nonsense, but the imagined background noise still cuts through the stillness of his, Peter's, and Elias's offices, empty as they are. Perhaps it's just his subconscious trying to calm him with a memory, though it feels like eons ago since the knowledge that he wasn't alone in the archives had soothed him during the Corruption's extended siege.
In reality, Martin lets himself be enveloped by the quiet solitude of his own office. It is a comfort which constantly tempts him to stay, whispering to him to leave well enough alone; to not bother Jon when he's tired; that he has work to do that Jon can't be a part of; that he's already seen him; that it's not important; and what would Peter say?
In retaliation, it seems, a more sensible part of his brain reminds the voiceless whisper that a serious allegation has been made, and steps need to be taken, and God knows that Peter won't be taking them. HR certainly won't know what to do with accusations of an Institute employee appearing in an individual's nightmares, even if they do have something to say about his accosting a stranger in public for a statement outside of work hours.
So Martin photocopies the filled-out form, and prints out a copy of the email he sent to HR, and digs out the right tape from his drawer. He scribbles an explanatory note and a list of suggestions – meditation, lucid dreaming, sleeping pills, 'eating' before bed – staples the lot together and tucks it into a folder. Jon isn't in by the time Martin descends once more, and is staring at the battle scars and plastic label of Jon's door with a folder tucked under his arm and two mugs of strong tea. Jonathan Sims – Head Archivist. He dithers for a second, assuming that Melanie can't see him.
But the door is cracked open, and the silence of the room beyond speaks of a characteristic emptiness, confirmed when Martin nudges the door open with his foot. The explosion of papers seems to have gotten worse in the last two hours, and on the largest desk, there's a clear space where a tape recorder and carefully-laid-out Manila folder rest, the typewritten pages and old photographs lying in a spread of neat, paperclipped stacks. Martin hopes that Jon's gone home early – he needs it, after all – but something worries at the back of his mind regardless. He knows he should be avoiding Jon, has been actively trying to do so; but there's still a part of him that was hoping to run into the man, if only for a moment. He misses him almost more than he can bear.
Martin shakes off the feeling, and leaves the folder on Jon's desk beside the steaming tea. Just in case. And if Jon doesn't know that the people he visits in dreams can see him there, and have their horror multiplied by the presence of the Ceaseless Watcher, well... He will soon.
Jon storms into Martin's office on Monday morning with a fuming snarl on his face. A split second later, he's drawing up short, eyes wide and shoulders falling. Martin pauses, looking over at him with his hands hovering over the chunky old keyboard, and they hold like that, suspended in water for a long moment.
Don't talk to him, says the whisper in the office, sounding suspiciously like Peter. It's for everyone's safety, his own safety, you can't interact, don't respond, don't acknowledge –
“Oh,” says Jon, dumbfounded, and Martin's resolve starts to crumble. His eyes dart down and up Jon's body, noting the healthier weight, the stronger posture, the cleaner clothes and recovered glasses
“Can I help you?” he says quietly, but Jon just keeps staring.
“I wasn't expecting to see you,” he says. “I – used to try and find you up here and you were almost never...”
Martin looks back at his computer, typing up another row on the philanthropy rota, and shrugs. “This is where I usually am.”
“Right.” Jon twitches his head as he dismisses the matter, and holds something up in his mottled right hand, reverting to suppressed fury. “What the hell is this?”
Martin glances up. It's the folder he left on Jon's desk, with a new note taped to the front that's covered in Jon's squared-off handwriting, messy from haste and, it seems, anger.
“Harassment complaint?” says Martin. “I'm still waiting to hear back from HR, but that's not unusual for them. I don't think it'll lead to any disciplinary action, but –”
"That's not what I'm talking about, Martin,” Jon growls, stalking forward until he can slap the folder down next to Martin's keyboard. Martin risks a glance at the front, and before he can stop himself, he catches a few phrases: 'you can't blame', 'I don't control', 'I need to learn', 'how can I stop' – “What do you mean, they know I'm there?”
Martin takes his hands off the keyboard and glares up at where Jon is trying to loom over him. His menace is rather reduced by the hollow look of his cheeks, but at least the puffy bruises under his eyes are gone.
“What,” he says archly, “we're just going to ignore the bit about you stripping a stranger of her free will and forcing her to give a traumatic statement, in public –”
“I listened to the tape, Martin, you said it yourself,” Jon snaps – “it's like an addiction, there's almost literally another being forcing my hand, I hardly realised –”
"So you couldn't have stopped yourself?” Martin accuses, feels the sarcasm dripping from his tongue – God, it's Elias all over again. “You had no choice, whatsoever, you just followed where the – the Eye moved you –”
"No, I –” Jon shuts his eyes for a second and pulls back, an argument cut short in futility. “I didn't – realise... It's hard, all right? I screwed it up. I'm not hu– I'm trying – Look, this information is important!” he cries, changing tack. “It's not direct harm, and we're researchers, Martin – or I still am.”
There's a spark of fury at the back of Martin's mind, and he grits out, “That isn't fair –” before Jon overrides him.
“I'm the Archivist. It's what I do.”
Martin's heart falls a little, and he tries to ignore it.
“Forget it,” he mutters, turning back to his computer. “If that's all you came here to say, I've got work to do, so if you could just –”
“I didn't know the dreams were real,” Jon says in a horrible monotone, cutting him off. “The café, the statement – forget about it, I'm working on that, but... I didn't realise that the dreams were real.”
In the few seconds since Martin last looked at him, Jon has gone from tight-lipped fury to a melancholy which seems to physically weigh on him. His eyes are downcast, and he looks smaller, vulnerable, the little flecked scars on his neck standing out against his darker skin. Martin has a horrible suspicion.
“Didn't you?” he asks. Jon's eyes close behind his glasses: Yes, he seems to be saying, I probably did. Martin lets out a measured breath.
It must be pretty shit, he supposes, to suddenly learn that your own nightmares of watching a stranger's torture at the hands of a preternatural fear being are lending to those very real terrors. Jon's the Archivist, now – as opposed to an archivist at a London research institute – and they'd all recognised the changes after he woke up from his coma, but the repercussions still seem to be unfolding.
The question of humanity, Martin won't go into. It's too much to think about, especially so soon after the Dark Sun's defeat, and with Jon barely starting to look better than half-dead. Whether Jon is mostly Jonathan Sims, or mostly the Archivist, or some warring combination of the two, Martin will protect him, and the business of acting as a horrifying voyeur in other people's nightmares cannot continue.
The plan relies on your isolation, says a memory of Peter in his head. Martin needs to get his hands out of the business as soon as possible.
“Look, it doesn't matter,” he says, staring at his computer screen and typing something he'll certainly need to amend as soon as Jon leaves. “Let's say you didn't know. It needs to stop, and I don't care how. This person didn't even come in to leave a statement, not that it's fine when they do, either – you need to learn how to control it.”
Jon is staring at him. Martin doesn't need to look up to know that.
His voice has gone soft. God, Martin loves it when his voice goes soft. He pecks at the Tab key.
“I'm sure you've read my suggestions.”
“Right,” says Jon again, and Martin finally glances at him. His eyes are bright, and almost hungry, a challenge to himself. Lost, Martin muses that they were always piercing, but the added Archivist effect – eerie as it may be – doesn't reduce their attraction.
“If there's nothing else?” he says, trying to distract himself. “I've got a lot of work to do.”
“There's nothing else,” Jon sighs, sounding disappointed, though whether it's in himself or Martin, it isn't clear. He adds, like a meaningless formality: “Thank you, Martin.”
“You're welcome,” he replies, just as emptily. Jon takes the folder and turns on his heel, treading silently out and clicking the door shut behind him, and at last Martin lets out a long-held breath and slumps above his keyboard, burying his face in his hands.
Martin tries to forget about it. He gets an email from HR on Wednesday which claims that the harassment has been noted in Jonathan Sims's otherwise immaculate employment record (risking your life for the company, Martin reckons, must stand for something after all), and that a formal meeting has been organised between Sims and his managing superior (like Peter will do anything, if he even shows up), but that appearing in a witness's dreams is hardly a provable offence, and without the accuser's details they have no way to follow up the incident for a more formal charge. At least he can't say he didn't pursue all the right channels of complaint.
Otherwise, he holes himself up in his office, enveloped in quiet and seclusion. Peter shows up that afternoon, blandly wondering if Martin's been talking to the others. Martin doesn't bother looking up from his computer as he slides another copy of the complaint form along the desk in explanation. Peter picks it up; skims the words; and lets out a meaningless hum. He disappears with the words “You're doing well, Martin,” and an inscrutable smile for which Martin barely glances up from the latest article on the Flint water crisis.
The next Monday, during a bland afternoon of checklists, Martin gets an email on his work account, which for once isn't a rota, monthly newsletter, or reprimand about uncovered dishes in the canteen microwave. It's from Jon, of all people – from his similarly-neglected work email – and Martin only opens it after he's crushed his disproportionate eagerness.
Mon, 25 June 2018, 13:41
Update on the harassment matter raised last week.
I've been researching methods of meditation, nightmare avoidance, and lucid dreaming, especially those associated with PTSD and trauma reduction. Have been experimenting with these methods, and will focus on them over the coming week. I'll write again if I have any success.
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
He tries not to be disappointed. It's good that Jon's even looking into it. He tries not to worry.
Unfortunately, Martin catches sight of Jon a couple of days later, through front windows of the main foyer as all the late workers are leaving for home. He looks worse than when they'd spoken: his jacket collar is bent, his shirt buttoned wrong at the bottom, and besides that, his face is grey and haggard, while his arms hang and his steps sway like his limbs are too heavy for his joints. His too-long hair is pushed back over his skull with its own grease, sticking out in points at the back, and the shadow of his stubble is a lot thicker than he normally allows. When he hums a goodbye to Basira inside the doors, his voice is low and gravelly, as it might be when he's just woken up, which, no, Martin, not allowed to think like that –
And then he's gone, disappearing into a blustery London evening. Martin finishes tucking a battered library copy of An Inconvenient Truth into his bag, waves absently to Rosie on reception, and heads out, turning left where Jon always goes right.
Thu, 28 June 2018, 09:06
I don't remember the last time you even used this address. Is it a trick?
Not to sound like Elias or anything, but you don't look well. Not stalking or Beholding, just saw you in the foyer yesterday as you left. Anything I should know about?
You still have all your sick leave saved up.
Acting Director, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Thu, 28 June 2018, 09:15
Jesus Christ, Martin, don't use Peter's account for this!!!
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Fri, 6 July 2019, 09:20
Sorry, forgot to switch accounts. It doesn't matter anyway, he never checks it. That's what assistants are for, and to be honest, I'm not sure he actually knows how to use an email account. He's not ACTUALLY monitoring me, you know.
Answer the questions.
Archival Assistant, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Thu, 28 June 2019, 14:57
It's not a trick, it just seemed efficient. Since you refuse to ever talk to me in person, and my texts never seem to go through. I gave up on that months ago.
I've been experimenting with lucid dreaming. I've managed to stay away from other people's nightmares more often than not, but it's exhausting work. Not just the effort of staying away, but I think the Watcher needs it, so it's physically painful for me to resist. It's kind of... hungry, which makes me hungry, like with the statements.
I'm reminded of something Jude Perry said to me: 'Feed your god, or it will feed on you.' I worry that I won't have a choice for much longer.
But I'm not done yet. There's some meditation methods I want to test out. I tried sedatives to try and reduce brain activity during REM, but it doesn't seem to stop the dreaming. I guess it is called the ceaseless watcher. But you're right: not tormenting people who've already been through a horrible experience and never signed up to anything more than an innocent statement to a weird but harmless institution is worth a little effort.
I'll let you know if anything changes.
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Martin tells himself that it's harmless. Emails barely count as communication, and the faint urge he gets to put his hand up to the pixels on the screen is surely proof of that. If he wants more, it must not count as enough.
And it's good that Jon is trying. He seems to at least want to hold onto his humanity, and with the Dark Sun gone, he has the freedom to actually concentrate on that, rather than on saving the world at whatever cost. He wants to stay Jonathan Sims, and not be subsumed by the Archivist. He must do.
Martin is used to nightmares. He had them a normal amount before he joined the Institute, of course – perhaps slightly more often than usual, with his parents' gifts of abandonment issues and a fear of never being loved – but nothing extreme. After Prentiss and the Hive's attack, they took a significant upturn, and then the Institute kept insinuating its way into his life outside its walls, and he found out about the horrors of the world, and Elias happened, and the Unknowing nearly did, and Jon died, and the Flesh attacked, and the constant terror, and Jon came back, and...
So, Martin is used to nightmares. It's a relatively familiar feeling, to ease from falling asleep in his plain old bed, to hazy half-dreams, to crouched on the floor of the archive panic room, arms around his knees and corkscrew clutched in his knuckle-white hands, while worms squelch just outside the walls, and someone pounds on the wall, croaking his name.
“Ma-artin...” she calls, full of holes and maggots, from a throat that shouldn't be working. No help is coming. She bangs on the door again, three knocks in a mockery of courtesy, and the squirming sounds of decay are coming closer. “Ma-arti-in...”
He starts to cry, heart pounding in his chest as if to get the most possible pumps out of his short time left alive. Tim is gone, and Sasha is gone, and Daisy is gone, and no help is coming. He pulls his knees ever closer, trying to curl in on himself as much as possible. Maybe if he looks dead already, the worms will ignore him, maybe he'll be too small to seem like a worthwhile target, or maybe Prentiss will just overwhelm him more quickly, and he won't have to suffer too much as the Hive subsumes him, and eats him up from the inside out.
She pounds on the door again, flat and unwieldy, the sound of limbs not quite under their own control, but still too strong for him to survive.
He snaps awake with a strangled gasp, heart racing and skin damp and cold. Frantically, he shoves and kicks the covers off, an instinct to confirm that he still has control over his body, hasn't been taken over by worms, isn't trapped in that ball on the archive floor; that he is, in fact, safe and whole in his own flat, despite what his brain is telling him. It's been almost a year since he last needed to actually check the flat for worms, turning on all the lights and grabbing a torch to examine every cranny, but he does feel the urge most mornings when he dreams of Prentiss.
After a few moments, Martin starts to relax, falling still and trying to slow down his breathing, and he frowns into the darkness of pre-dawn, remembering. The last call wasn't Prentiss, he thinks. It was a familiar voice, low and smooth, and backed by a faint hiss like a recording on tape. It was Jon.
Martin's frown goes slack-jawed and bewildered into the near-dark. The few times that Jon has appeared in his dreams, it's never been like this. There have been one or two half-remembered montages of his workplace and colleagues, the way everything in one's life seeps into their dreams at one time or another. There was the very distinct one where Jon spoke in the voice of the cute guy at the chip shop down the road from his old secondary school and offered to walk a dog that he'd never owned. Plus the inevitable sex dream or two.
But nothing like this. Jon rarely appears in his nightmares, and when he does, it isn't with tape in his voice and a lingering air of confusion. In Martin's head, Jon is never confused, though he knows that's just a fantasy. And considering recent events...
Before he can properly recover, Martin rolls over in bed and grabs his phone. He squints into the too-bright screen, thumbs clumsy after sleep and at the strange angle, and sends a hasty text.
Monday, 2 Jul. - 03:45
we're U ibnmyndream?
There's no reply by the time Martin falls asleep again, wondering if the text will actually work and remembering what Jon had written the week before: 'my texts never seem to go through'...
He needn't have worried, of course. He doesn't know whether to put it down to Jon's Beholding powers that he gets the text, or whether it's the Mother of Puppets, or just coincidence that they run into each other in the break room. It's not unlikely – the upstairs canteen, better stocked and more convenient for Martin's office as it is, doesn't open until nine, including unlocking all the cupboards with teabags and coffee, while the kitchenette in the archive is never closed – but he's startled nevertheless when he shuffles in with mug in hand, rubbing his eyes, to find Jon leaning on the counter over a steeping mug of tea, glasses perched on top of his head. Jon looks up at him with dull, tired eyes, even though he must know, even if it's not by Knowing, who's standing dumbstruck in the doorway failing to cover his gasp.
“Martin,” he croaks, sounding relieved. He clears his throat, and swallows. “How did you sleep?”
Martin shrugs, not answering as he steps forward and rinses out his mug at the sink. The plan relies on your isolation...
Jon eases his weight off the counter and turns to face Martin. “I got your text,” he says, squinting and stepping closer. “Did you see me?”
Martin shakes his head as he pinches a teabag from the box and drops it into place, reaches for the kettle between them.
“I – heard your voice,” he says, unobtrusive. Pours steaming water into his mug. Quiet, closed-off, that's the trick, when he can't avoid talking. Peter would hate it but it's the least damaging way to...
“I said your name.” Jon asserts it like an incontrovertible fact. He steps closer again, blinking as his mouth starts to form Martin's name, and Martin rolls his eyes and turns his head just enough to snap, “Put your bloody glasses on, Jon,” as he plunks the kettle back on its base. Jon stops short – says, “Right,” – and finally reaches up to resettle the glasses on his nose. From the corner of his eye, Martin can see smudges of grease on the glass from his hair.
Frantically he dumps a random amount of sugar into his tea and grabs it to leave.
“Email me,” he throws over his shoulder as he flees, hearing that low, smooth voice once more calling after him –
He hurries for the stairs before his feet can override his good sense, and once he's settled in with his tea, it is with heavy reluctance that he boots up his computer and opens his email.
Mon, 2 July 2018, 07:39
I thought it had to be a trick. I've never visited Institute employees in dreams, statement or no. I suppose it's one of the perks of the job. I thought I might be dreaming normally.
I don't know what's happening.
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
It makes Martin sigh. It doesn't count: reading text on a screen has none of the faint glowing effect behind his sternum that stubbornly appeared in the kitchenette, no matter if his stomach was also dropping. Instead, he feels more lonely than ever.
He sets down his tea, stretches his fingers, and clicks 'Reply'.
Mon, 2 July 2018, 08:10
Were you TRYING to visit me in particular? Have you otherwise been able to avoid strangers?
God forbid these stupid fear gods ever let us dream normally again.
Archival Assistant, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Mon, 2 July 2018, 08:15
They're not gods, Martin, that's a fundamental misunderstanding that we can't afford. That's how cults of lightless flame happen.
I've been able to avoid people's nightmares for the most part, and when I have ended up with them, I've got enough control to be able to leave quickly. A few nights ago I was able to stay in my flat all night, though I woke up with a splitting headache. Like when you don't drink water all day. Abstention takes its toll.
I have to apologise to you. It won't happen again, Martin, I promise that. The last people I want to watch in nightmares are those already suffering at this place. It took a lot of mental effort to get to you last night, and I'm sure I can direct those energies elsewhere.
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Mon, 2 July 2018, 11:29
I mean... would it be so bad, really? If you came to me, I mean. I chose this life, more or less, or at least there's definitely no way out for me. And it seems like you can't avoid them forever – if not visiting ANYONE is just going to get you killed... might as well be someone who knows what they're getting into.
Try again tonight? If I consent to it, it might even be easier.
Archival Assistant, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Mon, 2 July 2018, 12:02
You didn't get the full effect last night. You heard the engineer, you spoke to her, you must realise that it's a horrifying thing. I wouldn't want to put you through that, not even willingly.
Maybe it's like the statements. They were draining at first, but as my... powers grew, I came to rely on them. I'm weaker without them, now. Avoiding the nightmares is draining now, but if I persist, maybe I'll grow past it.
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Mon, 2 July 2018, 19:12
Whatever you think is best, Jon.
Archival Assistant, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Martin fires off the last email just before leaving for the day. Between them, and researching environmental disaster hot spots – widening deserts, shrinking glaciers, the hole in the ozone layer, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in particular – it's been an exhausting day. Meanwhile, marketing has been bugging the management team that they should have established an official website years ago, instead of relying on Reddit gossip to gather interest. He has a feeling he'll be asleep very quickly once he gets home.
The Tube is hot and sticky, but fairly empty – perks of working late, Martin supposes – and he puts in a pair of noise-cancelling earphones without turning any music on, listening instead to the muffled rumble of the train and the too-close swish of his pulse in his ears. The sway of the train starts to lull him, and he lets himself drift off, eyes falling closed and head drooping forward onto his chest until they near Stockwell.
Martin rolls the crack out of his neck, stands, and breezes vaguely out of the train and the station, his muscle memory getting him home. The light hasn't even started to dwindle yet – in the wake of recent business with the Dark, he doesn't at all mind – and Martin's distantly reminded of sprinting these streets at dusk to get away from Prentiss.
He grills a ready-made, single-serve lasagne, tries to scratch out a poem in pencil while it cooks, and eats it on his squashy sofa in front of a blank TV. He cleans up, changes into his pyjamas, and climbs early into bed.
He realises that the dozen words he said to Jon were the only ones he spoke to anyone that day. 'You're doing well,' says the Peter Lukas in his head.
In the end, Martin doesn't dream; or if he does, they're forgotten by the time he awakes.
There's no sign of the Extinction.
This should be a relief. The world-destroying entity isn't about to conquer everything any day now! Everyone can keep existing in relative peace! Except, the longer Martin spends oscillating between deep-dive research into the many and varied conflicts, crises, and disasters that threaten life-as-we-know-it, and long days of mundane administration duties and waiting on emails and forms, the more imminent disaster seems to be. Maybe that's just the life of a management-level assistant, he supposes – maybe all PAs feel as if, while they're not paying attention, the whole world is going to come crashing down around their ears – but there must be something more to it. Peter wouldn't have him going on a wild goose chase.
With Elias's confirmation, and the older statements, there's plenty of weight to the argument. Except, of course, that Elias is a creepy manipulative psychic who has a history of cruel and inexplicable decisions, and there's every chance those statements are fake. He never did try to record them electronically, first.
But such thinking gets him nowhere. Martin starts to understand how Jon must have felt after the discovery of Gertrude's body: suspicion lurking around every corner, and guilt in every colleague's eye. Except Martin doesn't even have a dead predecessor to worry about. Does he? If Elias ever had an assistant, Martin never knew about them, and now that Elias is gone, he's certainly not going to get word... He supposes he could check the personnel records – he does technically have legal access to them – but perhaps that would be a step too far. Better to live in blissful ignorance.
Martin accidentally takes his lunch break at the same time as the archive assistants on Friday, Daisy, Basira, and Melanie all crowded around one corner of a long table at the other end of the canteen. Martin could swear they don't normally eat up here, and not at this time either, as he makes a point of avoiding them... but then, who knows what strange circumstance in the basement might change their patterns. Perhaps they're just trying to evade the Web, or Helen's popped her head around her door again and sent things faintly spiralling.
“Holy shit, is that Martin?”
They don't notice him, of course. He's getting used to not being noticed: the café staff barely look him in the eye anymore, even Emily who used to jokingly flirt with him despite the lesbian flag badge on her apron. (He'd always figured that she'd known the joke went both ways.) Regardless, the archive staff have their own problems to be getting on with, and no doubt they'd just tell him to stop moping and do his job. Hard to stop moping when your new boss likes to appear out of corners at annoying moments and has you constantly researching the end of the world.
He picks up a piece of lettuce and tucks it back into his sandwich. There's a new artefact acquisition he needs to 'run past the Director' (which means answering the email from the right account and signing for whatever parcel arrives), and a list of potential public appearances to curry favour with donors that Peter will inevitably refuse. Though, with the amount of rubbish that man talks, he'd probably do wonderfully at parties. Social gatherings, however: not really the Lukases' thing.
“Can he even hear us? Martin!”
“He's not wearing headphones, is he?”
Oh, and that report on cyclone, hurricane, and major storm frequency and damage over the past four decades.
That'll be a thrilling read.
Martin balls up the paper bag from his sandwich and swallows the last of his water. He takes one final, furtive glance at the assistants across the room, so very distant, engrossed in their own chatter. They never even looked his way, he's sure. As Martin walks past them, he catches a snippet of conversation, muffled as though through a thin wall:
“D'you think Jon's okay?” Basira is saying. “He's looking even worse than usual.”
“Well, he's probably still digesting the Dark Sun,” offers Daisy, as she picks at a container full of homemade curry. “And he's got all his Archivist problems to worry about. Not as robust as you, Basira.”
Melanie's voice is pointed in correction. “Ny-Ålesund was three weeks ago,” she says. “And he improved a bit after that. But now...”
At which point Martin drifts out of earshot, dropping his rubbish in the bin as he passes and heading for the boiler for more tea. The amount of sugar he added to that one when he ran into Jon still haunts him, sickly sweet on his tongue, and he leaves the teabag in – no milk, no sugar – as he heads back to his office.
He almost hopes that Peter will decide to show up in the afternoon. He'll be ever so proud.
His lunch break normally takes twenty minutes, at most. That Friday, somehow, an hour had passed while Martin was in the canteen. He's not entirely sure where all the minutes went.
In Martin's dream, a faceless Elias is standing over him in the archives, looming horribly over everything, eyeless and all-seeing. The smell of burnt paper surrounds him, but he knows that's not why he's crying: it's that memory, only the smallest glimpse, running over and over in his head as Elias puts it there, the horrible truth of his being. He feels so small for once, sunk into a chair by one of the desks, and he wants to scream but can't get it past the anguish. Elias is watching him, impassive and vindicated, the deliberate author of Martin's undoing. His missing eyes do not blink, and there is so much more he knows: knows about the fleeting moments of annoyance Martin's had with his mum, about when he got blackout drunk before he'd even dropped out of school, about how pathetically he wishes Tim and Sasha would come back, how he wants Jon to notice him, praise him, love him, stand on his tip-toes and kiss him against the archive shelves. Every shameful secret is open to Elias, every harboured dream and weird decision, every furtive action and unspoken conversation – but he never moves to intervene, only watching, and occasionally dropping hints or traumas into one's path, staring and learning and Knowing, and never using that vast wealth of knowledge to stop any of the suffering he can see coming.
His mother's memory loops like a scratched record in his mind, and he can only hold his face in his hands and weep.
He looks up. Beside Elias' unmoving vigilance, is Jon. Most of him is blurry and unfocused, but his eyes... His eyes seem to take up half his face behind the glasses, and he is drinking in Martin's terror, staring unblinkingly at the tears tracked down his cheeks. There's something almost comforting in the sight, though Martin is sure it has more to do with the observer himself than the observation.
It takes a lot of effort before he finds his voice, but Jon doesn't try to interrupt.
Unaccountably, his eyes go even wider. He looks like he wants to move, but he can't.
“I should... I should go,” he says, and in the increase in words, Martin can hear the static tape hiss again in his voice, can almost see it spooling and unspooling in his mouth. He jerks as if to leave, and Martin tilts forward in his chair, heedless of the danger of getting closer to the monstrous Elias above him.
“No don't,” tumbles out of his mouth before he can stop it. God, Jon's eyes are so big they encompass the world. “Please,” he adds when Jon's head tips back towards him, though his eyes have never left the scene – “I want you to stay. You're – you're better than him, anyway,” he finishes, with a flick of his chin towards Elias. There's a moment's pause that seems to take a lifetime, and the longer Jon goes without replying, the stronger become the images in Martin's head, the new memory, and he's crying and gasping again before he can stop it. This moment can't have taken this long when it happened – Melanie should have come in by now – Jon should be off at a wax museum getting skinned alive by impossible strangers in the wrong bodies –
“All right,” Jon says at last, settling in just behind Elias's shoulder. The tape in his voice warps in and out of focus behind the words, and for a split second, he sounds entirely human when he says again: “All right.”
It takes hours. Hours and hours, in which Martin is forced to linger in that moment of understanding, that horrifying feeling of being known more than he ever wanted to let on. Now and then, he's allowed a reprieve – or Jon gives him a reprieve – or he wrests a reprieve from Elias's domineering Eye – and he lets Jon's gaze wash over him instead, not because it is very less terrible, but because it is a least a different flavour of terror. After all, they may both serve the same patron and feed on the same fears, but Jon was not the one who put this knowledge in Martin's head. Whatever he has become, in the moment, that was all Elias's doing.
As dawn breaks outside Martin's small bedroom window, Jon lets out a gasp just before Elias moves at last, leaning over with one hand perched delicately on the desk. He takes up the entire world in that moment, and Martin's body seizes up under the assault, his breath shaking out of him, wide-eyed and wide-mouthed in horror, as he stares up at Elias's merciless eyes.
“Don't burn any more statements.”
Martin has time for one more cry before he wakes.
The rising sun is already strong, and Martin jolts awake in his bed with the taste of salt in his mouth and crusty lines trailing along his temples and into his hair. Without sparing a moment, he rolls over and cries into his pillow some more. After all, it doesn't count if you do it while asleep.
By the time the alarm on his phone goes off, he's collected himself enough for a shower. It doesn't make sense that the Ceaseless Watcher should be less intimidating through Jon than it is Elias, but perhaps in this case, the ordeal is too close to the Institute, and its powers start to cancel each other out. As nightmares go, that wasn't the worst of them: much as he is haunted by the memory, by the figure of Elias looming over him, and by Jon watching with the tape recorder running in his voice, it's still the wormy ones that Martin hates the most.
And yet. As nightmares go, this one doesn't run down the drain with his shower water like the rest of them do. Perhaps that's the most horrifying thing of all.
It's perhaps inevitable that Martin runs into Jon on the Institute steps, like there's some kind of cruel fate at work (Martin nearly expects to see spiders). He almost literally runs into him, except that they're both walking: they don't realise that their trajectories will collide until they're both reaching for the door, and startling back at seeing another hand in the way. The flurry of “Oh”s and “Sorry”s is cut short when they see each other, and Martin has to physically tear his gaze from Jon before he looks for too long.
Jon, of course, has no such qualms about staring.
“Martin,” he says, sounding quite final. “About last night –”
“Don't worry about it,” Martin mumbles, and wrenches at the door. Unfortunately, he has some well-ingrained courtesy instincts, and he holds it for Jon to go first; but Jon, of course, is unmoving.
“Martin, we need to talk about it,” he sighs, resigned, but not quite annoyed. “This is no small matter –”
“Are you going in?” Martin says, sharply enough that it stops Jon short. In the silence that follows, Martin risks succumbing to the pull of companionship for a moment, and glances down at him. For a moment, he tells himself; just a moment...
And he looks – good. Better, at least, than the last time he saw him, and better than the overheard words in the canteen implied. He's washed his hair, for once, and recently shaved, and his cheeks don't look hollow anymore. There are bags under his eyes, but they look more like ordinary stress and sleeplessness than the bruises of the sick and injured, and though his shirt is un-ironed and there's a food stain on his trousers, at least his glasses are clean and don't rest at an angle.
Martin remembers that his own t-shirt is two days old, that his socks aren't matching, and that his hair must be a frizzy mess in this humidity. It's not really hot outside yet, but there are sweat patches growing under his arms and at the small of his back under his rucksack. His eyes are probably red from crying, and no doubt he looks as haggard as Jon does on an average day.
They can't just keep standing here.
“I've got work to do,” Martin shrugs, and pushes past Jon and into the cool building, avoiding contact. Jon catches the door behind him and follows, but his hurried steps are no match for Martin's long legs as he strides past Rosie at reception, determined to beat him.
“Martin, wait,” Jon calls after him, almost pleading. “Martin!
He all but runs the last few steps to the fire stairs, where he can disappear into anonymity.
Wed, 11 July 2018, 08:29
We need to talk. Properly.
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Wed, 11 July 2018, 08:32
No we don't. It's fine. You look better.
Archival Assistant, The Magnus Institute
Wed, 11 July 2018, 08:36
What I did was unacceptable. I can only get to your dreams because I've been avoiding everyone else's, the Eye is getting impatient and overriding the terms of employment. But it's unacceptable. You told me to stay but you can't possibly have meant it - maybe I was hearing things, hearing what I wanted you to say.
Of course I look better. You look worse. It's not okay.
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Wed, 11 July 2018, 09:46
It's FINE, Jon. I did mean it, you're better than Elias. If this is what it costs to keep you alive without preying on strangers, I'll do it. It's the least of my worries at this place.
If you need to feed on someone, feed on me. I am GIVING YOU PERMISSION. It's better than me having to fill out another form while someone cries across a desk from me because of the strange man haunting their nightmares. The Eye is... I'm not saying it's not awful, but at least I know you, and working here, I know the Watcher too. As much as anyone can, I guess. I don't mind. And you need your strength after everything that's happened, everything that WILL happen.
If it keeps you healthy, it's worth it.
Archival Assistant, The Magnus Institute
Wed, 11 July 2018, 09:54
… Fine. I accept the - terms of agreement. But I'll try to keep away as much as I can.
Thank you, Martin.
How are you feeling?
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Honestly, it's the “Yours” that kills him. It doesn't mean anything, he knows it doesn't mean anything; but God does he want it to.
Martin doesn't reply.
He spends the rest of the day out of the office, hunting down potential leads around the Houses of Parliament. He dreams something innocuous that night: his mum's old house, an empty bathtub, an unfamiliar road. There's no one around, but he can feel someone's gaze on him the whole time, almost a comfort in its presence. Almost.
Jon next appears in Martin's dreams on Friday night, after Martin has downed two beers alone in his kitchen in the hopes of a restful sleep. The relief of the last nightmare was that of exhaustion, like finishing a marathon (not that Martin would know anything about those), except he hasn't really recovered from it in the intervening days. There's a faint, bone-deep tiredness in him, not entirely unlike the deep-seated suspicion of being watched. Honestly, the comparison makes him laugh: no one could ever accuse Beholding of being subtle.
That thought explains a lot about Elias.
This dream is about the corridors. They twist and undulate before him, and whenever he thinks he must have turned around and turned around and crossed his own path, the intersection isn't there. Tim is there – he knows Tim is there – but Martin can't quite see him. There's just a high-pitched whine at the edge of his hearing, distorting everything everything else, and people – Tim, Michael, Jon – at the corners of his vision, never entirely visible, and throwing out his sense of direction. It's a loop – it must be a loop – the corridor which branches out but never ends or crosses itself, the moment in time that is fleeting and infinite all at once, the fucking ugly carpet that develops snags and worn patches just in time to trip, and trip him up.
“Martin,” says a voice, with a hiss of tape and static. “Martin!”
“Shut up, Jon!” he snaps, but talking only makes his headache worse. He stumbles to a halt, squeezes shut his eyes, grips his head between his hands, and tries to focus.
“This way!” comes an echo of Tim's voice – sweet, awful Tim, who's gone gone gone – and the hand that grabs his wrist seems to tug him in three different directions at once.
“I know how it feels, Martin,” says Jon, faint but determined. “Just hang on. You'll get out of here.”
“Yes, I know I'll get out of here,” he shouts, “it's the being trapped now that hurts!” And he runs after Tim again, a ghost just beyond focus. This place makes no sense, it's worse than a maze, it's a spiral a spiral, and yep, there it is, Michael's laughter, echoing and re-echoing against the walls from no where and everywhere at once. Someone says “Martin,” in his ear, but he can't tell which voice it is, or which ear actually hears it. Jon says “Martin!” in his ear, but when he turns to face it, there's no one there.
They're never getting out. They're never getting out. Tim cries “This way!”, but they're never getting out. They are rats in a maze, for Michael and Jon's amusement, who are watching them from on high, perfectly aware of the exit and how far away it always is. They are rats in a rats in a maze in a maze, and he can't figure it out, it doesn't make sense –
Martin thwacks his knuckles against the edge of the headboard as he flails awake, his gasp immediately cut off by a groan of pain. He curls in on himself, clutching his hand, and tries to slow his breathing.
He particularly hates the ones with Tim.
It could have been worse, Martin reasons to himself: it could have been Sasha, for whom they all only mourned in hindsight. He misses them both so much sometimes that he can hardly breathe for it; they never even got to have proper funerals. Martin grits his teeth, holds back his tears, and punches the mattress beneath him, “Fuck!”
It seems to work. The pain in his knuckles and the terror in his chest are fading, and he feels raw, and utterly exhausted. He weakly curls his hand into a fist again, and drops it to the lumpy mattress, and swears again, if only to himself.
Sun, 15 July 2018, 07:53
I tried calling you, but it said your number has been disconnected. Is everything all right?
I'm glad to see you've made it to work, though, even if you probably should be having the day off. I can never See see you when you're outside the Institute (has this got something to do with P Lukas?), but I know you made it in, and I'm glad. I was starting to worry.
Is everything okay?
About Friday night. I have to ask: How was it for you?
I'm feeling refreshed. Perhaps it's good to consume a fear that doesn't already belong to the Eye.
I'm sorry, that sounds morbid. But it's the truth. I feel better. Thank you, Martin.
Daisy said I should speak to you, but I don't think she meant by invading your nightmares. Have you got time for a tea this week? You can come visit us in the archives, if you like. I'm sure Basira wants to see you.
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Tue, 17 July 2018, 11:44
Sorry Jon, your email didn't come through until today, I think there might be something wrong the connection up here.
Martin sighs. It's not entirely a lie: he knew he had an email, the inbox was giving him notifications, and he'd got the Monday newsletter, and the usual one from the research department about approvals and access permits. He just hadn't been able to read Jon's until today. Each time he had tried to open it, it had just come up blank. It's probably to be expected.
He presses his lips together, and sets his hands back on the keyboard.
Are you sure you had the right number?
He knows very well that that's not the answer, but telling Jon “Sorry, that's just the Lonely's influence, I think it's screening my calls,” isn't going to get anyone anywhere but in trouble.
Bit creepy, but thanks for the update. It's always nice to know how far your powers are progressing. (That's such a weird sentence to be typing.)
Please don't take that the wrong way - you're still you, I know. And you can't help it. It's just a weird fact of life that's taking... some adjusting to.
He hates it. Hates that Jon is happily slipping into this being, this mode of being, that's so alien and yet so unavoidable. Hates that there's nothing he or anyone else can do about it. Hates that it's part of the new normal: there are entities preying on the fears of humans, a worldwide extinction event is almost certainly going to happen, Martin's email doesn't always work for the right people, and Jon instinctively knows the comings and goings of the Institute. On your way, now, nothing to see here.
He considers the next line, and groans into his palms. 'How was it for you?', repeats in his head, and once more for luck, as he imagines a post-coital Jon like in an old movie, with the sheet pulled up to his waist, lighting a cigarette, taking a drag, and glancing down at him, sprawled artfully on the other side of the bed. 'How was it for you?'
Martin shakes himself. Stupid train of thought. He must be more careful of those.
It was fine. I mean, it was a nightmare, but that's a given. Exhausting, but again, not surprising. I'll TELL you if I start having side effects.
He hesitates for a long moment, typing, deleting, and retyping the next words. 'You're welcome, Jon' sounds too formal, 'No worries' isn't formal enough, and anyway, God knows they've got plenty of those. 'I'm glad you feel better' could come off as sarcastic, even though he really means it.
In the end, Martin settles for leaving a blank line, and getting to the end as quickly as possible.
Hope you're otherwise well.
Archival Assistant, The Magnus Institute
This goes on for another month. The frequency of his nightmares increases, along with the frequency of Jon's presence, who, after a week or two, finally stops trying to comfort Martin, and just says his name when he arrives, watching the rest in silence. There's the one where he's trapped in his flat by Prentiss, eating halved meals and flinching when the knocking resumes; the worms in the archive one, often heavily featuring the corkscrew; Elias returns on a semi-regular basis, with that awful, awful memory, but Jon always notes in his follow-up email that those ones leave him feeling vaguely unsatisfied, like a cold that doesn't quite go away.
In August, Martin has his first nightmare without Jon since they began their strange, nocturnal dalliance. He is in his flat, but the world outside is full of a sickly-looking fog that stifles all sound and blots out his view of the street. He imagines it's like the old pea-soupers people talk about, and feels a faint thrill almost like suspense or romance, like reading an old Victorian mystery. But when he goes outside, there's no clatter of horse's hooves or posh-sounding chatter, and no upright hats or wide, swishing skirts. There's just silence – damp, muffling silence, pressing in on all sides – and no one seems to be around. He walks to the chip shop around the corner, and though the lights glimmer through the fog, there's no one inside. He walks to the Tube station, and there's not even any staff, let alone a passenger. He gets on the train that squeals obediently into the station, and rattles away towards an empty London.
No one joins him on the train. There is no one between Stockwell and South Kensington. And when he arrives at the institute, there is no Rosie behind the reception counter, no one waiting for the lifts, no one huffing up the stairs. There is no one in the canteen, or in the hallway to his office. He doesn't dare go down and check the archives. Meanwhile, the fog seems to have followed him into the building, drifting lazily around his ankles. His feet make no sound as he walks.
He doesn't speak in the dream; isn't sure that he could if he tried. If someone speaks and there's no one around to hear it, ever again, does it count as communication?
Of course not, says Peter's voice in his head. That's the point, isn't it?
Martin doesn't snap out of that nightmare. Instead, he drifts off as he sits down to work, the dream world seeping away, and when he does wake, he's sure there was a short time of nothing between dreaming and waking, in which he slept normally for once.
He feels particularly well-rested that day, while the Jon he glimpses between the library stacks as he passes looks irritable, with his shoulders bowed under tiredness. Jon doesn't notice him back; too lost in the books, Martin assumes.
It's okay, though. By the next week, Martin has had three varieties of worm nightmares, and Jon has watched each one with exacting attention, and the familiar, drained feeling has returned, with its usual prickling at Martin's back. When he leaves for lunch, Rosie is off delivering post to someone, and Martin sneaks a glance at the CCTV screens beside her computer. Jon, sorting through a box in the main archives, looks bright and alert even through the grainy feed, and satisfaction settles around Martin's diaphragm. At least it's working.
It's another fortnight or so before Peter reappears, while Martin's squinting at his office computer screen late on a Thursday night, trying to comprehend a paper on coral deterioration. “I'm just not sure,” he says cordially, right behind Martin's shoulder, and he just about jumps out of his skin.
“Jesus Christ – Peter!” Martin whines, spinning his chair to glare at the man, suddenly standing in the middle of his office. “I told you not to do that! Don't you have anywhere better to be?”
“As it happens, yes.” Peter smiles his blandest, most pleasant smile, and Martin rolls his eyes. God, but he'd be good at donor events. “But I thought I'd check in on you. Still looking into the environment?”
“It looks like the most prominent threat to existence,” Martin monotones. “Why, do you have any better ideas?” He spins back to his computer, scrolling to try and recover his place, and muttering, “Know of any imminent nuclear wars I haven't heard of?”
“Well, I'm as hesitant as anyone to declare that all that unpleasantness between America and North Korea is over,” Peter shrugs – Martin can see his faint reflection in the computer screen – “but I wouldn't say it's as dire as all that. No – I just question whether the Extinction is really going to focus on an ecological disaster when a military catastrophe might be a significantly more effective manner of... let's say 'deployment'.”
“You said the Extinction might replace us with another species,” Martin shoots over his shoulder. “Can't do that when the world is an unliveable irradiated hellscape.”
“Why not?” Peter suggests. “I'm sure a cockroach fears just as effectively as a human does.”
Peter laughs at that, a polite little chuckle at Martin's backtalk. “And yet,” he says: “I haven't sensed any kind of power build ups at any of the sites on which you've been focusing, and neither has Elias.”
“You've been talking to Elias?” says Martin, then immediately stops himself. “No, of course you have, what am I thinking. Beholding needs something to behold, just as much as Forsaken needs people to forsake.”
“He's been a valuable ally for many years, you know,” Peter smiles, “whatever arguments have passed between us. I can't say I don't know why you cannot trust him, but you may just have to take his word, when it comes.”
“Fine,” Martin mumbles. He scrolls down. “So the Extinction isn't going to come flowing through the hole in the ozone layer, or rise up out of the sea when the Marshall Islands flood over, or be released from the Ross Ice Shelf as it melts. What then?”
“I'm not sure,” Peter muses, sounding far more curious than concerned. “I suppose one of the many African or Middle-Eastern or South Asian conflicts could escalate –”
“But not to a world-ending scale,” Martin finishes for him, already bored of this conversation. It's not like he hasn't considered these options.
“Not unless something changes drastically,” Peter admits. “Which, I'm sure I don't need to tell you, could be effected by an avatar of the Extinction.”
“The Extinction doesn't have an avatar.” Thank God. “We'd know about it by now.”
“Perhaps,” says Peter, shrugging nonchalantly again. “Then again, it might be hard to identify them until they are too powerful to stop. Now, wouldn't that be ironic?”
Martin scrolls down. “No, it wouldn't.”
“Well.” Peter remains entirely unfazed, and maybe that's the most infuriating thing about him. Martin's been trying to compile a list, but it's very long, and there are lot of factors each vying for top billing. “It may yet be an environmental disaster. I mean, you've seen what's happening with these hurricanes: Katrina, Irma, Maria. Look at Puerto Rico.” He mangles the name horribly. “The knock-on effects were certainly something, similar concurrent events might do the trick, at least for that area.”
“Yeah,” says Martin gloomily, trying not to think about it. “And mudslides and wildfires and monsoons, I get it. Maybe Tambora will blow again, or Yellowstone will finally go.” He curls his lip, trying to stave off the horror. “Year without a summer times a million.”
“A modern Byron or Mary Shelley might at least get some good art out of it before they all perish.”
Martin really doesn't want to laugh at that, but he can't help the little snort that comes out. Peter Lukas can be a riot when he tries. Then he looks up from the computer screen, as a thought belatedly strikes him.
“Hang on,” he says, and spins in his chair. “Hang on. You're not – you're not doing this to feed me to the Extinction, are you?” Articles and books and op-eds and reports and speculations and death tolls and – it's been getting to him, hasn't it? What if that's been the point all along? “I'm not some kind of sacrifice you're fattening up to – to slaughter to stop the ritual when it happens?”
Peter stares at him for a long moment; then smiles, flat and amused.
“No, Martin,” he says. “How could you think such a thing?” Martin levels him with a glare, and he capitulates with deliberate contrition. “No,” he says again, surer this time. “Although now that you mention it, perhaps all this research is detrimental to our plans, if your horror of what you find outweighs the knowledge. But I doubt it.”
Martin slumps down in his chair, crossing his arms. “How can anyone learn about all this and not be horrified?” he mutters. “It's all awful news, and no signs of hope. Of course it's terrifying. Little wonder people are –”
It strikes him then, out of the blue. He remembers reading about the Heathrow protests, the Blackpool anti-fracking action, the environmentalist behind the Trump baby balloon, blockades outside the Volkswagen building just the week before. He wonders: how much do these protestors fear? They are angry, yes, and passionate in their convictions, and he wouldn't be surprised if they were even a little nervous about their actions; but are they afraid at the time? He's heard of 'climate grief', but what about 'climate terror'?
Peter is cocking his head, watching him.
“Something wrong, Martin?”
Martin glances up at him, only his eyes moving. This could be a game-changer.
“I have more research to do,” is all he says, and spins back around to his computer. He trusts Peter enough to go along with his plan, but not so much that he feels entirely comfortable revealing such a breakthrough. At least not until he's sure it's not part of some secret plan Elias and Peter are cooking up behind his back.
Peter smiles, politely delighted. “Oh, that's good,” he says. “Since you weren't doing much of it before.” If it's sarcastic, or an insult, Martin just doesn't care. “Shall I leave you to it, then?”
“That'd be great, thanks,” Martin sneers, not turning around. He scrolls down to skim read the conclusion of the report he's been reading, then clicks out of it, opening up a new window and heading straight to Facebook to look for events. By the time he glances over his shoulder again a few minutes later, Peter is gone.
let martin blackwood say fuck 2k19
Thu, 20 September 2018, 14:14
It's been a long time since we've spoken. I miss you.
How are you feeling? I thought I might have seen you across reception last night, but I couldn't see you properly. It was like trying to see without my glasses, except I know I was wearing them.
I'm worried. How are you? I feel too good for you to be okay. I'm still not really sleeping enough, but the sleep I do get is restful. I don't get as many headaches. I have more control over if and when I compel people, I'm better at moderating what I can See. You know. And I can't even remember the last night I spent without visiting you - late August, maybe?
How are you?
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institue
020 7377 6659
These days, Martin moves in a haze. He goes to work without really noticing anyone, he does his research, he emails protest organisers, he visits past and likely future sites of civil disobedience and strikes, he calculates rosters for each department. He uses the new queue-jumping app the café has introduced, so he can order coffee and a sandwich from his office, then go down five minutes later and pick it all up without having to talk to a single person. Whenever he needs the archive kitchen, the basement seems deserted.
Then he goes home, eats a single-serve frozen meal, pokes at some poetry, and goes to sleep to wait for Jon.
It's become a routine, comforting and reliable in its horrors. He never knows which nightmare it will be – sometimes its Elias for a week, sometimes it skips between experiences, occasionally it's been something from one of the statements he recorded when he still worked under Jon – but he knows Jon will be there, watching, impassive and impersonal. Behind his tears and his terrors, Martin can always feel him, the prickle of scrutiny at the nape of his neck or goosepimpling the skin of his forearms. When he takes the time to look, he can see him, too, if only sometimes at the edges of his vision like in Michael's corridors (are they Helen's, now? Or does she take ownership of a different set of It Is Not What It Is?). But he likes the ones in his flat best, where towels and socks are jammed around the edges of windows and door, and Prentiss knocks intermittently, and sometimes, Jon just sits across from Martin at his kitchen table and watches him eat, like some kind of uncanny date night.
Nightmares make a nice change from the living hell that is his growing understanding of the Extinction, anyway.
He's sure of his hypothesis, now – even told Peter one Monday in mid-September, only to face his insipid brand of surprise and some cryptic words about checking in with Elias – and has feelers in a handful of activist communities, mostly online. The offline ones are hard to go to when he has trouble even saying hello to people.
It feels dishonest, despite that, for the most part, he actually agrees with most of what these people are doing and trying to achieve. They're right to be angry, and they're right to take action; he just wishes that their underlying fear was less palpable. Then, he might not need to infiltrate their circles under false pretences, to hide information and veil his motivations. In ordinary circumstances, he would probably have joined them honestly, even if he was never very good with crowds and shouting. But Martin has rather forgotten what 'ordinary circumstances' look like.
To top it all off, the Lonely remembers to take over his dreams once a month or so, as if to keep him on his toes and remind him to whom he really belongs. He doesn't know if it's Peter's personal doing, or another of the Lukases, or some other avatar, or Forsaken itself. He hopes he isn't doing it to himself.
Mon, 1 October 2018, 04:51
Where were you? I couldn't find you. I feel sick. I think I might throw up. Where are you?
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Tue, 2 October 2018, 22:36
Sorry about that. Mustn't have slept deeply enough for a couple of days. Hope you didn't throw up in the end.
You should find me fine tonight.
He agonises for twenty minutes over the sign-off to that email, typing and deleting and retyping what he wants to say, or thinks he should say, or thinks Jon wants to hear. What's more appropriate, what works in this situation, why is he bothering with it at all? He can just send the email as is, it's not like Jon won't know who it's from. It doesn't matter. Why is it taking so long?
In the end, he goes with his first instinct, and shuts down his computer and flees the office as soon as it's done. He'll see Jon soon enough, but it doesn't matter. It's not like they'll discuss it.
Archival Assistant, The Magnus Institute
It's that week that Martin realises he's in control. He's on the train home from work, fingertips shaking and halfway towards dozing, when he notices that there's no one around him, despite it being the tail end of peak hour. From his seat, he frowns at the empty carriage, peering one way and another down the length of the train and seeing no one. He muses that perhaps it would be nice to see another person; and then another person appears, holding on to one of the bars near the doors to his right. There's no puff of smoke, no twist in the fabric of space, no sound; just, one moment there's no one standing there, and the next, there is. Martin cocks his head at them, as they gaze absently out of the window with headphones on, and wonders how many other people are really on the train.
And then he sees them, simple as that. The train is almost packed, brimming with people scrolling down their phones or reading books or rummaging through bags. There's a baby in a pram in the next carriage, complaining but not quite crying, and some distant college girls laughing, and someone in the crowd is talking on their phone (American, of course). On either side of Martin are a tall, middle-aged white woman checking her make up, and a fit young Sikh man smiling at pictures of a little girl in a text chain.
But Martin's head is aching slightly after a long day of work, and from the bone-deep tiredness that started when Jon first visited his nightmares. People are too much at the moment, and he wants very much to be alone again, in peace and quiet. So he closes his eyes, thinks hard on that feeling, and when he opens them again, he can only see three other people, one on their phone in the next carriage, one staring at nothing a little further down, and the first person he saw, standing and listening to music and gazing out at the tunnel wall. No, Martin thinks, properly alone, and then there's no one. Just him, and his thoughts, and blissful quiet but for the clattering of the train on its tracks, and even that is fainter than it should be.
He takes a deep breath, and sighs it out with a smile, which sours as he has the thought: Peter will be pleased.
Peter is pleased. He doesn't really say as much, but he appears in Martin's office the next day just before lunch time, when Martin is between phone calls to journalists asking around for any strange incidents at pro-environment rallies.
“I think I've made a breakthrough,” he says, not looking up at Peter, who stands at the end of his desk, until he's finished typing up notes on the last call.
“Really?” Peter's interest never quite sounds genuine. “What did you do?”
“Well, more than one breakthrough, actually,” Martin admits, hitting save and turning his chair to sit back and glare up at the Lukas in his office – “but one of them matters more. I made everyone disappear on the train home last night.”
Peter's eyebrows slowly approach his hairline.
“Really?” he says again, this time with feeling. “That is fascinating.”
“No one notices me if I don't want them to, sometimes when I'm not even paying attention.” Martin's a little ashamed of how much he's very clearly begging for praise and approval, but he's always been a bit like that, and it's definitively not the same as with Jon. “I guess you'd call that progress.”
“Indeed,” Peter nods. “Very well done, Martin. We might have a chance against the Extinction after all.”
Martin rolls his eyes, and goes back to his computer, squinting at the screen, even with the brightness turned all the way down. “Right, thanks,” he mutters. “Was there anything else you wanted?”
Wed, 10 October 2018, 07:49
Where were you last night? I tried finding you, but I couldn't. I think I ended up in Manuela Dominguez's dreams somehow, which I don't feel too bad about, but it's still not ideal. In case you were wondering, she's still alive in Helen's corridors, but she's really losing it.
It feels awful to talk so callously about another person's suffering. Then again, I suppose she was trying to bring about the end of the world as we know it, and is certainly personally responsible for a number of deaths. So I can't regret it all that much.
Did you sleep at all? How are you?
I miss you.
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Thu, 11 October 2018, 09:17
The Magnus Institute
Thu, 11 October 2018, 09:32
Fri, 12 October 2018, 09:51
Sorry about that, I think my email is glitching. Don't worry about me using this one, Peter won't notice, and if he does, he probably won't care.
I'm fine. I just didn't have a nightmare, that's all. I've gotten so used to how tired I get because of you watching me, that it's almost weird to feel this refreshed. At least my joints aren't aching as much today.
It's probably a good thing that you feel bad for Ms Dominguez. But I guess, yes, a lack of pity is... fair.
I'm sure I'll see you again tonight.
Acting Director, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Two weeks later, Martin is skimming Guardian articles online as he eats lunch at his desk when he sees a letter, signed by a list of academics and a few politicians, calling for climate action and declaring their support for a new group of activists: Extinction Rebellion. Maybe it's optimism, or the coincidence of the wording, or the faint Beholding powers he's picked up from working so long in the archives, but Martin is certain he's found the strongest lead yet.
He looks at his desk phone, and opens up his world again, thinking Maybe not as alone as all that, and immediately the phone rings, the little display showing a private number. He picks it up after four rings, just to annoy the caller.
“You've found something, haven't you?” comes Peter's tinny, far-away voice.
“I know where the Extinction is going to try and manifest,” says Martin, although his certainty is a passing thing, as he remembers: “Well, I know vaguely. There's a group called Extinction Rebellion, they're organising civil disobedience protests to call for action on climate change. As soon as they announce something –”
“The fear at a demonstration like that will be palpable,” Peter agrees mildly. “Of course, there is also going to be interference, from angry ecologists, and presumably some sadness –”
“Yes, but,” Martin interrupts, “I don't think that will be a hindrance to the ritual. If anything, it could help whoever decides to bring it about. Extinction is... it's chaos, and turmoil, and a lack of control. I'm sure these protests will be well-organised, but the feelings in them won't be. Fear, anger, grief, I think the power will be able to feed on all of them. And if they're all concentrated in one spot...”
Peter hums on the other end of the line.
“It's a solid theory,” he says. “Presumably this activist group is hoping to avert ecological disaster, but –”
“But,” Martin interrupts again, “I think that's the point. To not only manifest, but to crush any hope of survival at its inception. Wouldn't the irony be, I don't know – delicious?”
“You tell me.”
Martin snorts at that.
“You're the avatar of a power,” says Martin, “not me.”
Even from down the phone line, Martin can feel Peter's chilling smile grow into the silence.
“Quite,” he says, meaning something entirely different. Martin shifts in his seat, all his sudden confidence deflating in an instant. He clears his throat.
“Well, whatever,” he says. “I'll let you know when Extinction Rebellion announces a date and location. And then...”
He trails off, realising that, despite his certainty about the details, Martin doesn't actually know what the plan is. It requires Forsaken powers, he knows that much, and a touch from the Institute, and Peter and him, and maybe the tunnels, but beyond that... What are they actually planning?
“I see,” says Peter, and gives a resigned sigh. “To answer your questions, Martin – well, to help you answer them yourself – Extinction can't wipe everyone and everything out if there's is nothing and no one to wipe. If at its moment of manifestation, somebody were to recognise it, and take it somewhere where there is nothing to destroy, it will be neutralised, at least for a time. Do you understand?”
Martin does. He thinks about the train two weeks ago, and imagines the frustration of a being that wants to kill everyone, stuck on a train with no one at all.
“M-hm,” he hums in answer. “I understand.”
“I'll be doing what I can from my end of things,” says Peter, like it's meant to be a comfort. “But I'll need you on the ground.”
“That's what I thought,” Martin sighs. “Well – I might still survive it.”
“And then,” Martin starts – but he doesn't quite know how to finish that sentence. Once it's over... He wanted to talk to someone, to explain... something. But really, who is there to talk to? Maybe Jon will see it in one of his dreams, a new nightmare for him to feed on, but really, his life will surely just go back to the normal it's become.
“And then?” Peter repeats back to him, and Martin shakes himself back to the present.
“Doesn't matter,” he mumbles. “I have work to do.”
He hangs up without a goodbye. Peter probably prefers it that way. Before finishing his sandwich, he re-reads the Guardian letter and rubs his wrist, trying to get rid of the need to click joints that he knows won't be soothed by it.
Martin reads about the road blockages outside the Houses of Parliament, and knows that it's started. He doesn't feel too bad about not being there just in case: a thousand or so people, he thinks, would surely not be enough to help a power manifest, not on their own. He reads about planned student strikes in Australia at the end of November, and wonders if it would be worth flying out. Then again, if he's right that Peter's plan relies on the tunnels, maybe putting thousands of miles between himself and the Institute would be a mistake.
A week later, he finds the Facebook event for a bridge occupation in London, and discards the Australia idea completely, as, without caring where the certainty is coming from, he thinks: This is it. He notes the date and time in his phone calendar, where reception and Wi-Fi have been patchy at best for weeks. He'll check each bridge on the day, but it's not a stretch to assume Westminster will be the biggest gathering, what with the tourist profile and historic buildings. He'll make sure to set some phone alerts and be ready to run if necessary.
He doesn't bother trying to contact Peter. Instead, he just scribbles the time, date, and locations on a post-it, and leaves it on his desk. Peter will find it.
On the way home that evening, he makes sure nobody sees him. It's become a habit, really: the Institute is fine, as are some of the emptier streets in London and Stockwell, but on the commute back and forth, he tends to keep his world at least partly closed, leaning back in a seat and breathing steadily through the stiffness in his knees. It's calmer that way.
Mon, 12 November 2018, 08:19
How are you, Martin? It was good to see you last night. I'm feeling well, almost better than I have in a while. I'm sure I'm due for some kind of horrible injury at the hands of an antagonistic avatar soon, but for now, it's nice to have a break. The archives are actually looking almost organised, now.
Getting to work was a nightmare, this morning - have you heard about the protestors? Glueing themselves to government buildings and everything. I can't say I'm not proud of or sympathetic to them, but mostly I'm just jealous. Imagine your greatest concerns being anthropogenic climate change and natural disasters, rather than monsters that feed on existential fears.
Now that I think about it, I'm almost surprised that there isn't some kind of new entity based on the fear of climate disaster. But perhaps that's a little bit too specific. There certainly is enough fear going around for it, though.
I miss you, Martin. I wish you would sleep more. I wish many other things, but I suppose I've learnt to live with what I can get.
Head Archivist, The Magnus Institute
020 7377 6659
Martin wonders if Jon is getting complacent with his language since he stopped replying to the emails, letting such casual intimacies through regardless of how dangerous or inappropriate they might be. It's not like Martin hasn't tried to reply, it's just that every time he does, his computer freezes, or the browser closes, or the keyboard disconnects, or the message fails to send. The email app on his phone crashes whenever he tries to open it.
He still receives the emails, though, fairly regularly, even if it's often a day or two before he can load anything more than a blank page. He supposes that he might even be missing some here and there, but then, he can't miss what he doesn't know exists.
On Wednesday afternoon, Martin hears a faint hissing sound while he's approving the budgets from Payroll, and, after rummaging through all the drawers in his office, finds a tape recorder in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, and sighs. He turns it off, and takes it to his desk, where he slaps a post-it note on the front, hovers over it with a Sharpie for a minute, then gives up and just leaves the note blank. Turns the recorder off again. He goes down to the archive, making sure to see nobody, and deposits it on the 'borrowed' library trolley at the end of one of the long lines of shelves.
The plan is to leave as quickly and unobtrusively as he arrived. When he passes Jon's office, however, he finds his feet slowing, unwilling to take him any further until he's taken just a peek inside. The door is unlatched, but mostly closed, and after a moment of hesitation, he sighs at himself and steps closer, opening his world a fraction as he gives the door a gentle push. It swings slowly open with a muted hush, and a very faint creaking sound.
Inside, Jon is sitting at his largest desk, facing the door. There's a folder and tape recorder in front of him, and his glasses are sitting by his elbow. He looks up sharply as the door opens, cutting himself off mid-sentence, and the tape hisses away into the silence. Jon stares at the door, then glances left and right – pauses – twists around to look behind him with a frown – and returns to staring at the door.
“Hello?” he says to the room, and Martin is warmed, leaning his shoulder on the door frame as he watches him. Jon has such a very nice voice.
He looks good, too. Still as tired as he's always been, but mostly put-together, clean shaven and neatly dressed. He's had a haircut recently, but it's still long enough to both push back in a gentle sweep, and fall forward in unpredictable pieces over his brow when he leans over to read, black locks streaked through with grey. The usual urge to take those locks between his fingers and set them back into place still takes Martin's breath away, but it's a distant feeling, strong in his lungs but at the back of his mind, something the acting of which seems even more impossible than before.
“Is someone there?” Jon asks, narrowing his eyes at the empty room. “Lukas?”
Martin shakes his head, No, but smiles through it. It feels a little strange to be the voyeur for once, but he can see why Jon might enjoy it, and for that matter why Peter does, too. It's nice to have control, for once, to know more than someone else.
Then Jon's face goes slack, and his breath thins out, as if an idea has struck him. He pushes back his chair, scanning the space around the door more narrowly and quickly, and rises to his feet behind the desk. He opens his mouth, and for a moment, nothing comes out, and he just stands there, speechless.
“Martin?” he whispers to the emptiness. “Is that you?”
Martin's confidence shatters at that. Is Jon guessing, Knowing, or hoping? He's not sure if he wants the answer. Jon moves sideways around the desk, plucking up his glasses as he does and settling them on the bridge of his nose, blinking as he then steps forward, towards the door.
“Martin, if that's you –” he says, then stops – swallows – and gradually lifts his trembling, tortured right hand before him, fingers undulating very slightly as if to feel his way through the air. He squeezes his eyes shut, and Martin stares at him from the doorway, head slowly cocking to one side, wondering: is he... is this what it looks like when Jon has to put the effort in, when he tries to See what he cannot see? Jon is gritting his teeth, now, letting out a pained grunt, and his fingers flex in the air in front of him.
Without thinking, Martin has stepped forward, eyes fixed on Jon. God, it's been so long since he's seen him in person, so long since he heard his voice without the tape behind it, so long since they made eye contact and had a conversation, so long since the last time Jon clapped him on the shoulder, or Martin grabbed his arm, or –
Martin lifts his own right hand, and touches his fingertips to Jon's, where the skin is mottled-smooth and warm. Immediately, Jon takes a sharp breath and snaps out of his efforts; but he's not looking at Martin, not really. His eyes are locked onto a spot just to the side of Martin's right ear, where he might imagine Martin to be, but not where he is. No, he cannot see or See him, and that is as it should be.
“Martin, please,” says Jon, low and hoarse, and that, that is too much for him to bear. Martin turns on his heel and sweeps out of the room, closing off his world again before he can hear Jon calling after him. He leaves the door swinging faintly towards closing, and hears Basira's muffled voice saying, “Jon? Did you say something?”, before he's out of the archives and back in his proper world.
Too dangerous, he thinks, as he hurries back upstairs towards his office, down carpet-muffled corridors where a thin layer of fog drifts at ankle height. Never again.
On the morning of Saturday the 17th, Martin packs his rucksack with food and water, and an extra jumper, unsure of how long the protests will last, or for how long he'll be waiting for whatever avatar of the Extinction makes their move. He's long had suspicions of some of the leaders in the groups, especially online, but he has enough self-awareness not to set too much store by his own paranoia. He will – hopefully, almost certainly – know them when he sees them.
As planned, he visits every bridge, trudging down streets variously packed or trickling with people carrying signs and flags, or sporting badges and ostentatious jewellery. By ten o'clock, there are decent crowds at every site, moving into the middle of the road, making speeches and starting chants, each gathering hedged by news cameras and blank-faced police officers. There's no doubt about it: Westminster is by far the biggest crowd, and Martin makes his way back there by noon. It's uncomfortable, now, to walk through central London with his world entirely open, but there's no way he'll be able to find the focus of the ritual, or manifestation, or whatever it ends up being, with one foot in the Lonely.
He goes along with the chants, and smiles pleasantly to the few people who try to talk to him. Under any other circumstances, this would be both extremely out of character for him, and absolutely wonderful: crowds can be awful, but it's good to be surrounded by passionate people all united in a single cause, determined to change things for the better. It should be incredible, thrilling, encouraging; but instead, Martin is nearly shaking with nerves, looking over his shoulders and waiting for he doesn't know what, to strike he doesn't know when.
At one o'clock, someone gets up on an improvised platform to make another speech, and the whole crowd goes quiet, almost eerily so. The megaphone squeals every now and then, and it's hard to make out every word from the middle of the bridge, but the tone is clear, and affecting. Those people who aren't entirely rapt still speak in undertones, chatting or calming children or making plans. Martin takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and lets it out in one long, steady motion, opening up every barrier and trying to tap into that little spark of Beholding in him, searching for a way to See. He opens his eyes, and scans the crowd ahead of him broadly, looking for anything that catches his eye as unusual, or otherworldly. He turns in a slow circle, examining the crowd from near its centre, finishing one revolution and then starting another. It's when he's facing the back again – facing the rest of the protestors whose eyes are still on the speaker – that his breath catches, and his eye falls on one particular person, not all that far away in the crowd.
She's a young-ish woman, no more than thirty or thirty-five, white and fair-haired, and a bit short. She is rugged up in the same kind of coat, scarf, and gloves as everyone else, but unlike them, there are no bright colours in her outfit, no socialist reds or Rebellion greens or purples, not even a rainbow flag of solidarity or the patches of autumn tones which adorn the hippie-leaning protestors. Instead, she's dressed all in black, with a dark grey scarf abutting her strong chin and making her seem all the paler. There's a frantic stoicism to her, something in the brightness of her eyes and the severity of her expression, which would normally seem intense, but now seems just short of violent. Martin notices her lips moving very slightly, and that she is glaring at the world around her in a focused and hateful manner completely alien to the tone of the protest, not angry at the Houses of Parliament, or the skyscrapers, or the confused passers-by, or those in power, but at the crowd in which she is mired, the speaker, the happy, grief-stricken, empowered, terrified people.
And now she is pulling a screwdriver from her coat pocket, and eyeing the heedless person in front of her, and Martin locks his eyes on her, breathes in – Here goes nothing – and by the time he's breathed out, everyone else in London has disappeared.
The woman freezes, the hand with the screwdriver pulled back to her hip ready to thrust, while her left hand clutches at where the stranger's arm used to be. She blinks, and looks around her, feet scrabbling against the asphalt as she topples in a dumbfounded circle and finally faces Martin again, noticing him at last.
“What the fuck?” she says, as she starts to hurry across the suddenly yawning space between them. “What – did you see that?!”
“I made it –” Martin has to stop, and clear his throat. It's been a very long time since he talked to someone. He raises his voice to carry across the distance between them. “I made it happen.”
“What – you – what?” the woman babbles, coming to a halt. “How?!”
Martin shrugs. “I just did,” he calls. “It's not so different to what you were about to do.”
“What I –” The woman stops herself short, and glances at the screwdriver in her hand, then hurriedly tucks it away again in a pocket. “I wasn't doing anything.”
“Yes you were,” Martin says. “I know about Extinction.”
The woman stares at him for three full seconds before she raises an empty hand to point at where the speaker was standing just moments ago, and says, “Rebellion? The – protest group?”
Martin glares at her, archly. God, every other avatar is cool and intelligent, and here he is, stuck with the idiot from the new entity who doesn't even know an antagonist when she sees one.
“You were summoning the Extinction,” he explains, drawing out his words, and as he speaks, the woman's baffled expression falls into something cold and furious, “to destroy the world before we humans get a chance. Wipe us all out and give the world a fresh start. Am I right?”
The woman's lip curls at one corner, and whatever earnest confusion had softened her for a moment coalesces into something angry and terrifying.
“You can't stop it,” she says, and Martin is about to point out that he already has, when the woman tears at her scarf to reveal black wounds across the skin of her neck and collar, sluggishly bleeding something dark and oily, and Martin draws back with a gasp. She marches towards him as she starts to shout, tugging off her gloves to reveal hands streaked with pitch-like blood. “It's going to happen whether I do it now, or someone else does in ten years, the apocalypse is coming, it's only right! We brought this on ourselves! There's nothing left to save, it's doomed!”
Martin rolls his eyes through the horror. It's all very cliché, and the most words he's heard from anyone but Peter in weeks, pesky and tiresome.
“This will happen!” the woman roars at him, as she pulls out the screwdriver again and the bridge starts to tremble under their feet, with a deep and horrifying rumble. “You can't stop it!”
Martin stumbles back a step, and holds up his hand, palm out, concentrating; and then the woman is gone, swept into her own personal plane, where Martin goes when he wants to be alone on the Tube. The rumbling stops immediately, and he gives the woman a few moments, tucking his hands in his jacket pockets and breathing deep.
The air here is cold and clear, fresh, devoid of any other living thing. There is no traffic noise, or construction work, and even the river sounds strangely distant. It is soothing. Calm. Alone.
Then Martin lets the woman back in, and she is metres away, stumbling, screwdriver dropping to the road with a clink and the dull clapping of plastic. She spins around wildly to find Martin again, and when she speaks, she sounds much less sure than before.
“How did you do that,” she says, panting slightly, before she shakes his head and snaps, “It doesn't matter. As long as you're here, I can bring it to life. All it takes is one death to start it off. One death –” She bends to pick up the screwdriver, eyes trained on Martin who is starting to realise something horrible. “And It will rise to take care of everything else.” She starts to walk towards Martin again, who forces himself to hold his ground. “A fresh start. Nothing left of us, none of this greed, and hate, and war – a beautiful, merciful cataclysm.”
“I won't let you do that,” Martin says, even if his voice is shivering from something that isn't the cold. The woman lets out a wordless snarl, which turns into a shout as the world starts to tremble, and she raises the screwdriver and lunges at Martin –
Who steps out of the way, and into a different plane, all by himself again. Surely the world is safe just so, with the woman Forsaken: she clearly needs to kill someone to start the ritual (why do they always need to kill people to start rituals?), and if there's no one in her world to kill...
What if she figures out how to control the Lonely, and makes her way out? Or traps someone in with her only to kill them and start the apocalypse? What if Martin's made a mistake and left someone else in London for her to find and murder, what if Martin gets slack and lets the woman slip back into the busy world, with endless victims at her fingertips, what if –
Martin hurries over to the footpath, the clap of his thin shoes echoing faintly across the empty bridge and faint river. When he lets himself back into the world with the Extinction woman, she is nearly at the west end of the bridge, shouting something which echoes away into silence.
“Over here!” Martin calls, and the woman spins on her heel and starts running towards him, the inky wounds on her neck and hands writhing and oozing, and widening even as Martin watches them to engulf her entire right hand in thick, black blood which never drips away. Martin stands his ground, still trembling, and waits until the woman is almost on top of him, before he steps aside and –
“Martin, if that's you –” Jon whispers to an empty room, as Martin watches him put on his glasses and advance, raising one shaking hand into the air, until Martin steps forward, and touches their fingertips together, warm and gentle and solid even without seeing it –
The woman lets out a strangled cry, and tugs uselessly at her arm as Martin holds her in place by the wrist, breath shaking as he stares at where they're connected. She glares at where she thinks Martin might be, adjusting her stance and trying to pull away too late to stop Martin wrenching the screwdriver from her grip with his other hand and throwing it over the railing and into the far-distant water below.
“Where are you?!” the woman shouts, panting and furious, but Martin ignores her, concentrating instead on every empty train ride he's taken, every foggy nightmare, every hallway and building and city and country and planet devoid of human contact, devoid of anyone but the self. He pulls those memories and powers closer, and piles them on the woman through the hand on her wrist, pressing upon her everything that he has become, assaulting her with Forsaken itself. The woman lets out a gasp, and her eyes go wide, and her free hand shoots up suddenly to try and push Martin's fingers from her wrist. It doesn't work, of course – Martin Blackwood isn't a very strong man, but he isn't the being holding onto her anymore – and the Lonely creeps inexorably into her, forcing her to her knees with a terrible whimper.
“Please,” she spits into the cold, empty air, as tears form in her eyes – “don't leave me here. Don't leave me!”
She's sobbing by the time Martin lets her go, lets her see him again, and from the way the woman cries out, it is the most heart-wrenching relief to have company once more. Martin stares down at her, and it feels like he's watching himself, too, watching from a different place far above, without a body, without a mind, without a soul, without even an Eye with him, lonely and drifting. He could wipe this pitiful person out in a moment, if he wanted, could consign her to an empty hell, and it would be easier than breathing.
He could stay there himself, if he wanted.
But then Martin comes back to himself with a rush, and is watching the woman stifle her tears with renewed anger, wiping angrily at her face and smearing it with the ooze from her rotting, night-black wounds. From this close, Martin can see that they're still moving, irresistibly eating away at her, shifting her flesh into an oily carcass, a chemical burn, a twisting, mangled corpse. She can't be left alone, Martin knows this – not entirely – but there's nowhere to really hold her, except –
“Come on,” he says gently to the tortured woman. “I'm going to take you somewhere, somewhere you and everyone else will be safe.” He doesn't know if that's necessarily true, but surely Peter has a plan in place for this eventuality, or he can ask Jon for a solution, or –
It's then that he hears what sounds like the rushing of air through a tunnel, like the draught of an oncoming train in the Tube, and realises that he has made a terrible mistake. The woman looks up too, catching his eye in confusion, and in explanation, Martin looks at the ground around them, which has turned from worn and painted asphalt to grey slabs of stone, darker than they should be on Westminster Bridge in the middle of the afternoon. When Martin looks up again, the London that should be beyond the far side of the bridge is almost entirely subsumed in shadow, rushing towards them faster than he can judge. Near the embankment, he can see a well-dressed, older man in a long coat and with a grey beard, reading a heavy, leatherbound book; before he can call out, the shadows rush over the figure, and he's gone. There is a close but muffled sound, as of stone shifting on stone, and all around them, walls are slowly appearing, made of a horribly familiar kind of brickwork.
“What's happening?!” the woman shouts over her tears and the rushing, grinding sounds around them, as Martin stares at where he had seen Peter, calmly reading, and sighs. He can't pretend to be entirely surprised. The woman has sprung to her feet, now, and is trying to climb over what has already appeared of the stone walls, thrown back by something invisible and inexplicable at every opening.
From Martin's rucksack, below the noise of the manifesting tunnels, he hears a heavy click, and a familiar, hissing whirr, and he smiles sadly.
“Hello Jon,” he says to the air, quite sure that the recorder he never packed will be able to hear him. “I'm sorry about this – I always assumed that Peter had some kind of plan that he wouldn't tell me, but I was trying not to think about it. Too late now, I suppose.”
The woman with him is running towards the shadows, now, shouting for help, for an escape, where none will ever be. Around him, the world is more tunnel than London, with wide gaps here and there showing the sky outside, distant buildings being overtaken by shadow, and patches of Westminster Bridge.
“What's important is that you're safe,” Martin tells the tape, with final certainty. “I'm sure the Extinction will try again, but it'll take a while, like all rituals, and this one has been definitely foiled. Peter must be using a Leitner to trap me and the avatar in a part of the tunnels, but really, we're already in our own little world. That's what Forsaken can do. I don't regret it.”
From deep in the shadows, the woman is coming running back, fear etched into every line on her face, or that which hasn't yet been carved out by the Extinction's wounds. She is shouting something to Martin, but it echoes too much off the tunnel walls to be intelligible. Martin is honestly shocked at how well he is taking all this, but really, it's no more than the full explanation of what he had vacantly suspected all along. And it means that Jon will be okay. That's the only important thing.
He calmly takes his phone out of his pocket, and turns on the torch, as the last few gaps to the weak London sunlight start to wall up.
“I'm sorry this is what it took,” he tells the recorder at his back, raising his voice over the Extinction woman's begging. “But you're safe now. I told you I wasn't going to let you die again, and I've kept that promise. The Extinction is no longer a threat. You're safe. Everyone is, I guess, but – you, Jon. That's what matters. You're safe. Everything else is manageable.”
The rushing sound is slowing now, making the woman's cries sound sharper even as their echoes grow longer, as she pounds at the walls with her bleeding, contorted fists.
“Hold onto the others, Jon,” he says, as he watches the patch of sky to his left disappear, turns his eye to a bit of railing off to his right. His throat feels tight, but he refuses to cry. “You don't want to become like me.” The woman is scratching and scraping at the edges of bricks as they close over a piece of London skyline ahead. A thought occurs, and Martin almost laughs to himself: all that time Jon was worried about becoming a monster, and here he is, trapping a woman in the Lonely and hardly able to recognise himself. At least Jon's Beholding powers had seemed in character: he always was a stubbornly curious man.
“I don't have any more time,” he says, “but for the record: seventeen November, twenty-eighteen.” The woman is thrown back as that final patch closes. “From the entity formerly known as Martin Blackwood.” There is a resounding, slate-like boom!, and the only light left in the entire world is Martin's phone torch, and the screen which shows him the 48% battery that he knows will last forever.
By the time the stony echo has faded, the whirring in Martin's rucksack is gone.
Full respect to Extinction Rebellion, who do really incredible work around the world. Also, living as I do halfway across the world from the UK, I clearly wasn't there for the bridge occupations in November 2018, so, spooky shit aside, consider this a fictionalised version.
Martin learns that the Extinction woman's name is Verity. She is thirty-one, and has lived in Stanwell all her life. When Martin points out, “Until now,” she goes very quiet.
He will not tell her about himself.
Verity spends the first few weeks (by Martin's admittedly hazy estimation) of their isolation trying to find a way out of the tunnel. She beats on the walls until parts of it are black with her corrupted blood. She claws at the floor to no effect, and even asks Martin if she can sit on his shoulders to reach the ceiling. He declines. The first few times she sets out into the darkness, she always returns within an hour, paler than usual and utterly quiet, and when Martin asks if she found anything, her honest answer – “No,” – does not tell the entire story. Martin has a feeling that it is less that she didn't find anything, and more that she found nothing, a distinction which makes all the difference in her trembling terror. The fifth time she tries to get out this way, she is gone for about three days and reappears at the other end of the tunnel, looking utterly defeated at the sight of Martin sitting right where he always does, back to the wall with the phone torch-up on the floor by his feet.
They do not get hungry. They do not get tired. They do not change. This tunnel prison is forever.
Martin spends almost half his time shutting Verity out, either so that she simply cannot see him, or so he's entirely alone, far away from her fears. He feels weaker when he cannot see her, though, and though he won't admit it to himself, he knows why. He has had so much practice acclimating to Forsaken, that by this point, it is as much a part of him as Martin Blackwood, probably more. Yet he hesitates still to accept that the hunger for fear that an entity carries has also infected him, creeping in under his skin and making him need in the most undefinable way. He tries to stay away, if only because he prefers to be alone.
Poor Verity, on the other hand, never expected this, and never could have prepared for it. It haunts her far more than potential death and destruction.
After a month or so, the Buried tries to get to them. It starts with a deep rumble, and the wall shifting at Martin's back, and the sound of collapsing stone further down in the tunnel. Somehow, Martin gets them through it by sheer annoyance. He is perfectly content to be trapped in the Lonely, but Choke has no place here, and the idea of it trying to get to them when they are already imprisoned grates at him more than it makes him afraid. Verity is a different matter: she asks in a frantic voice what is happening, and when Martin voices his suspicions, she looks as scared as when she returned from the tunnel, but she stands her ground nevertheless.
In the end, all Martin has to do is glare into the shadows and at the walls and shout “Seriously, bugger off!” to get Buried to leave them alone. It probably also helps that he drops them in and out of the same plane as the looming danger: no doubt the entity has little interest in chasing them through infinite dimensions. There are easier victims.
The Dark is a little harder to fight off. It starts as a whisper in Verity's ear: out of nowhere, at some point months into their confinement, she jumps, and asks if Martin said anything. He looks vaguely up at her, answers no, and goes on with nothing until he hears the whisper too, just behind his shoulder as well as echoing out from the shadows at one end of the tunnel. He is beginning to consider the possibility of another attack when the light on his phone flickers and dies, despite the battery having never drained a single bit in all their time there. Martin forces himself to stay still and collected, until Verity yelps in the darkness and whispers, “Is that you?” when Martin is nowhere near her.
It's Verity who gets them out of that one. When out of the pitch, impenetrable blackness, hands start pawing and pressing at Martin's chest, shoulders, and throat, and pulling at his trouser legs, and the sounds of other beings' breaths begin to come from all around them, Verity doesn't freeze in terror like him, but gets unaccountably angry. Perhaps it's the power of the Extinction working through her, but Martin hears her striking out in the dark, screaming wordlessly until her throat goes hoarse, and the breathing subsides, and the hands leave Martin's body. When the torch flickers weakly back into life, and resumes its usual strength, there are rips in Verity's clothing like claw marks, and the dark mess splattered in a halo on the wall behind her is not entirely made up of her clotting, oily blood. She is out of breath, but smiling.
“Close,” she pants to Martin, with a vicious threat in her teeth. “So close.”
It's a good thing the Dark never tries again. If they'd been full, physical beings, Martin wonders, or once-human entities, would her defence have been enough to kick start the Extinction's ritual? And if it had, would Martin have been able to contain it to the destruction of only Verity and himself, or would it have been able to break out from the Lonely and into the wider world?
That's why he's there, he supposes. Pity Peter doesn't like to get his hands dirty.
After what might be six months, Verity and Martin fall into a routine of nothingness. They just sit across from each other, not speaking, barely even looking at each other, as time passes them by. Martin still lets himself drift into another plane when he wants to, to the truly Lonely, but he never lets Verity out of his sight for more than an approximate day. She has stopped resisting, he notes, stopped trying to find ways out, even stopped moving almost as much as him. She will never truly stop being a danger; but for the time being, Martin lets himself relax into the empty tunnel, feeling her presence without having to acknowledge it. His mastery of this dimension is so complete that, when he concentrates, he can feel every breath she takes, and every beat of her corrupted, broken heart in his bones and at the back of his mind. He almost thinks he can feel the spark of her nerves, and the sluggish pulse of chemicals and electricity in her brain as she forms thoughts and dreams to pass the endless time. He certainly knows when her terror spikes, satiating that indefinable hunger.
This world is his, and she is in his world, and so she is a part of him. There is nothing she will be able to do without his knowledge.
He'll grant Peter this: it is a very effective prison, with the most comprehensively omniscient guard.
Eternity, then. Martin could handle eternity like this.
Perhaps ten months into their imprisonment – though they are both admittedly quite vague on what time means by this point – Martin decides to sleep. Verity stares at him when he suggests it, but the light from his phone is getting tedious, and he knows by now that he can leave her for at least a short time without danger. He supposes that it's worth a try; it might even make the time go a little faster. So he leaves the phone with Verity, turns left, and walks away down the tunnel with his rucksack until the torchlight is nothing more than a glimmer in the distance. Then he makes a little pillow out of his bag and some outerwear, lies down, and curls up with his back to the wall, thinking that it's a good thing it is neither hot nor cold in the tunnel. It always seems to be just the right temperature.
It takes days for him to actually drift off – inasmuch as there are days where they are – until he's sure he's more meditating than dozing. When, unaccountably, he really does fall asleep, he knows because of one very particular sign.
Jon is there.
Martin dreams of his old living room. There are towels and bits of clothing stuffed around the door and the few windows, and a polite knock on the front door which fills him with terror. He is sitting at his table, halfway into the tiny kitchen, both hands clenched into fists on top of the surface with a butchers knife placed between them. He knows Prentiss and her worms are waiting for him – that it is only a matter of time, really, until they squeeze through the cracks around the windows, or in through the plumbing, and eat him up alive – and he flinches horribly when she knocks again, holding back a sob.
Then there's an all-too-human gasp in the room, and stumbling footsteps, and a low, smooth voice backed by magnetic tape which says, “Martin? My God, Martin – is it really you?”
He looks up from the table, and there is Jon, grey and haggard, but neatly dressed, standing in the middle of his living room and staring at Martin like a man stranded in a desert would look at a freshwater oasis. For his part, Martin's mind has gone blank, and there is a warm, glowing sensation behind his ribs that he had forgotten he could feel.
“Jon,” he says, as the pieces fall into place in his brain, and he feels a broad, toothy grin form on his face almost without his willing it. “You're okay.”
“I'm o—” Jon scoffs at that, moving closer. “Who cares about me, you're –” He stops himself, breath shaking in and out as the tape seeps out of his voice, and he stands across the table from Martin and just... stares, drinking him in like he'll disappear at any instant. Martin watches him back, pleasantly impassive. It's indescribably good to see him.
After a moment, Jon sighs shakily, and lowers himself into the chair across from Martin.
“How –” he starts, voice cracking slightly, and clears his throat. “How are you, Martin?”
There's another knock at the door, then, and Martin jumps, remembering who is waiting out there, who is liable never to leave. As the fear runs back through him, he sees Jon close his eyes and swallow hard, sighing and almost smacking his lips when Martin turns back to him.
“Sorry,” Jon mutters, “I'm not used to – I mean, I've missed –” Through it, his eyes never leave Martin. When he speaks again, his voice is hushed, and almost reverent. “How are you?”
Martin shrugs. “I'm fine. Verity isn't very good company, but that's not what I did it for, and she needs looking after. I'd rather be alone, but –”
Jon raises his hand between them, saying, “Wait, stop – Verity?”
“M-hm,” Martin answers. “The woman who tried to bring Extinction into the world. I trapped her in the Lonely, but someone needs to make sure she doesn't figure her way out again, or get released by another power. We've already survived attacks from Too Close I Cannot Breathe, and the Dark had a go, but –”
Another knock on the door, another thrill of terror down Martin's spine, this time pulling a cry from his throat as he stares at the door, expecting it to fall down at any moment. Again, Jon closes his eyes, like he's savouring a particularly good morsel of something.
“You trapped yourself in with her?” Jon asks when the moment has passed. “In the – in the tunnels?”
“No, that was Peter Lukas,” Martin sighs, once more looking away from the door and to this most unlikely man. “I always figured he was hiding a part of his plan from me, and I guess that was it, but it doesn't matter. I assume you got my tape.”
“Yes.” Jon's mouth hardly moves as he says it; Martin doesn't think it is a happy memory he's recalling. “I was – that is, after you – Was that you in my office?”
Martin smiles again, wide and joyous: Jon remembers. “I found your tape recorder in a filing cabinet,” he explains, “thought I might as well return it. I couldn't help but have a look at you. I suppose you were –”
“Seeing,” Jon explains hurriedly, “I was trying to See you, See what you were up to – I kept trying after that, and suddenly, that Saturday, it was so much easier, and I thought – I thought maybe you were coming back.” He laughs something shallow and hollow to himself, with more regret than mirth. “I heard what you told the tape, and realised I was wrong. You weren't coming back. You were leaving for good.”
“Only because I had to,” Martin explains, trying to gentle his insistence. “You'd already died once, Jon, I wasn't – I couldn't let it happen again, not if it was something I could stop. And I did stop it. And you're safe. Aren't you?”
Jon just watches him in silence for a moment, brows drawn down at the edges in something like sorrow.
“Yes,” he sighs, “yes I am. We all are. From the Extinction, at least.”
“There you go, then,” Martin shrugs. “It worked. So I don't regret it.”
Another knock at the door, and a rising sound of worms outside, and Martin's body freezes up without his will as he stares at the door again. A helpless sound escapes him, and he grabs the knife with both hands, false comfort though it is.
“You think Lukas used a Leitner to trap you in the tunnels under the Institute,” Jon says quickly, leaning on the table, and Martin's gaze snaps back to him, effectively distracted. “With this – Verity woman. Why?”
“He knew the Extinction was coming,” says Martin, obvious though he thinks the answer is. “There's no chance of him completing a Forsaken ritual in thirty or forty years if Extinction has wiped out everyone he could possibly leave Lonely, and he, I dunno – thought I had potential. I went along with it to get rid of a threat. We made a deal, after the Flesh attacked: I helped him with the Extinction, and he kept everyone safe from the other entities.” Prentiss knocks again then, and Martin gasps and grips the knife tightly, but Jon talks over him, jolting him back into conversation.
“So you worked out when Extinction would try to manifest, and trapped its avatar in the Lonely with you,” he rushes out. “Why you?”
Martin shrugs. “Peter wouldn't very well want to be stuck guarding her, would he?”
They both have the same idea at the same time; Martin doesn't need Beholding powers to know that. Their eyes catch each other in just the right way, and Jon's expression goes as wide as he feels on his own face as they take a breath in unison. But if Jon tries to – then –
“Don't,” Martin says, though it's more of a plea, and it makes Jon draw back in his chair. “Don't do it. I'm okay, Jon, you don't have to free me from anything. I'm fine.”
“You're not fine,” Jon growls, jutting forward. “You're in an endless tunnel, you're trapped with that –”
“I'm not trapped,” Martin insists, the knife clattering back onto the table between his hands as he leans over it and tries to explain. “I chose to be here, Jon. I'm not Martin anymore, not really, and I belong here. I don't mind the Lonely.”
“And if I told you I don't mind forcing statements from strangers, would you say that I'm okay?” Jon drawls. “Just because you've given yourself over, Martin, doesn't mean that you don't need to be rescued.”
“I'm fine,” Martin repeats. “Please don't try to get me out and leave Verity unguarded. Please don't mess with Peter Lukas.”
“Even if you are fine, it doesn't matter,” Jon snaps, waving his argument away. “You're forgetting the most important thing.”
“And what's that?” Martin frowns, halfway between confused and annoyed, until Jon says, “I miss you,” – and his voice is so strong, and full of conviction, that Martin thinks he can feel his heart crumbling in his chest. A gasp of air escapes him, and he sits back in his chair like he's been pushed there. Jon misses him. Jonathan Sims, the Archivist, misses him. It's one thing to read it in an email when they're not really speaking, but this – this is –
Martin has no defence against this.
“I miss you too,” he whispers, and sees Jon's shoulders slump in something like relief. “But I can't. I can't miss you, Jon, I can't want you – or what happens to Verity?”
“It doesn't matter,” says Jon, shaking his head, but Martin overrides him.
“Yes it does,” he says. When Prentiss knocks on the door again, he can almost ignore it, but his heart beats faster in the dream anyway, and Jon seems to savour it. Martin lets out a breath, and swallows, and says, “I don't mind not being with you,” through half-closed lips, like it's a horrible secret. Jon's face goes carefully blank at that, and Martin continues, not raising his voice: “I made this deal to keep all of you safe. And as long as you are, Jon – I can survive anything.”
By now, Jon is almost glaring at him again, the intensity of his gaze both unfathomable and perfectly human. There is certainty in his next words.
Martin meets his eye, and distantly, like looking through a one-way mirror, he feels... pity, though for which of them, he isn't sure.
“If I leave,” he says, slowly, and quietly enough that he can hear the worms outside, “Verity will –”
“She'll still be trapped,” Jon insists. “By the time she figures a way out, if she figures it out, we'll know how to fight her properly rather than just imprisoning her.”
“She needs a gaoler, Jon,” Martin sighs, and Jon growls, “It doesn't have to be you,” across the table. Martin knows what Jon is thinking, but he can't finish the thought for him, can't entertain even the possibility of the idea that – that someone else – that Peter – that he might –
Martin pushes away from the table, saying shakily, “I need to wake up.” He stumbles back when Jon stands too, mirroring him, and shakes his head, not meeting his eye. “I can't indulge this. If my powers grow weaker and Verity gets out –”
“I'm going to come for you,” says Jon from the table.
“Please don't, you don't have to –” Martin tries, hands out in defence and supplication, but it's no use. He's forgotten just how stubborn Jon can be.
“I'm going to find you,” Jon says, like a statement of fact. “I'm going to get you back.”
Martin squeezes shut his eyes, and concentrates very hard on clear empty air in his lungs, and the blissful peace of solitude, and when he opens his eyes again, Jon is gone. He lowers his hands. There is no sound of worms or knocking on his door, and a faint layer of mist hovers around his ankles, blanketing his dingy old flat with cool and muffled silence.
Martin doesn't know how long it takes him to wake up, but he does, eventually. Then he packs up his things, and turns toward the faint, white glimmer of his phone, and walks back in his own part of Lonely to watch Verity. She doesn't seem to have moved since however long ago he left, and he doesn't let himself be seen for what feels like a good few days at least.
When he does, she just looks up at him, registers his presence, and goes back to staring at her knees in silence.
It's perfect, Martin thinks. Just perfect. No Archivists need interfere.
Has it been a year?, Martin thinks. It feels like it's been a year.
Perhaps not, he goes on, maybe a week later.
Even longer between thoughts, he decides: Yes, I think that's a year.
“Unsuccessful, was it?” Verity whispers into the shadows. Martin looks her in the eye for the first time in centuries, and she adds, with no voice in her breath, “Trying to sleep.”
He shrugs one shoulder in answer. He's not going to be trying again.
Later, Verity weeps, the tears running silently down her face. She doesn't sob, but her breath is wet and shaky, and Martin thinks that his job is going to be easy for a lot longer than expected. If Forsaken is still making her cry, then she's further from breaking out than he expected. The only way out of the Lonely is to become a part of it; while it can still feed on her terror, Verity's prison bars are stronger than any metal.
After a day or two, her tears turn black and oozing, like the blood that still coagulates on her hands and neck. She doesn't stop for another week.
Martin cries, once. He doesn't know why.
There is a tape recorder next to Martin.
It has been years since something changed in the tunnels, just him and Verity sitting across from each other, Martin every few weeks dropping out into his own place for some peace and quiet from Verity's firing synapses and oxygen absorption.
There is a tape recorder next to him now. He moves his head, infinitesimally slowly, to stare at it.
Verity doesn't notice the recorder until it clicks on, deafening in the near-complete silence, and whirls into life, hissing faintly as the little wheels spin. Her head whips around to stare at the device. She opens her mouth, but neither of them really remember how to talk.
“Found him,” says a voice on the tape, tinny and fizzling, as a static sound surges, whistling through the little speaker. Martin recognises that voice. “Got it,” says another, a woman, and Martin's brain conjures up an image of a nose behind a book, deadpan humour and determination, before another voice entirely growls, “Let – me – go,” the tape warping behind it; a voice Martin knows well but has never heard in so passionate or enraged a tone.
“No,” says a deep Welsh, and Martin pushes himself to his feet, Verity's eyes following him all the while.
“Let me go!” Peter shouts through the speaker, and Jon's voice says “Keep reading,” and Basira's says “I am,” and Martin picks up his rucksack, scarf, and phone as Verity scrambles to her feet.
Funny. They should be sore after sitting unmoving on hard stone for a decade or two.
“Nearly there,” says Basira, and the static on the tape surges, so much so that Martin stumbles back from the recorder. He would be afraid, if he were capable of feeling anything.
“You can't do this,” Peter growls. “You can't do this!”
“I think you'll find,” drawls Jon's voice, shaky but certain, “that we are. Daisy? Update on Elias?”
“Melanie's out of the prison,” says Daisy, like she's reading off something, “and Bouchard is...”
“I can't tell you what I don't know, Jon! If you're so concerned, why don't you find him?”
“I'm a little busy keeping my eye on Martin – No, Lukas, you're not going anywhere, I see you –”
Martin stumbles further back at the sound of his name, the tape recorder receding into shadow as he takes the only light source with him. Verity follows, mute and staring.
“Done,” says Basira's voice, and Peter tries to shout, but his voice is cut off by silence. The warped little scream in the tape disappears. No one speaks for a moment, the recorder falling into its default, muted hissing, and Martin glances at Verity, whose eyes are wide and desperate. They haven't communicated this much in years.
“Is that it?” says Basira, and Jon, voice tight and straining, answers, “No, keep going, keep reading –” There is the sound of a page turning, the papery hush of it barely distinguishable from the tape static –
– silence again, for an endless moment –
– then the tape warps again, wheezing its distress, and Jon's voice shouts “There!” at the same time as Verity and Martin are no longer alone.
Peter Lukas spins on his feet beside the tape recorder, and for once, his slate-grey hair is in disarray, his coat collar askew, and there is an expression well beyond bland interest on his face. He catches sight of Martin, and the fury in his eyes takes focus as he stalks toward him, growling, “You – you –”
Martin takes a step back, into his own little empty tunnel, where the tape no longer hisses and Verity no longer stares, frantic in her silence. A second later, Peter follows, appearing two steps closer than before, his hands like claws at his sides.
“I'm going to kill you –”
Martin steps back again into isolation, and is followed again by a murderous Peter, swiping his way through the Lonely.
“You and all your little archive friends, do you think they'll be safe when I'm –”
Martin retreats again – is followed again –
“You CAN'T DO THIS –!”
Martin scurries back into solitude, but seconds later, Peter's hands are at his throat, clutching his collar, his neck, and Martin chokes, and shoves at his wrists before he can get a good grip, running and staggering his way back to Verity through six different planes, before –
The tape hisses again, and Verity gives a wordless shout, and Martin's mouth forms a shape as he stumbles, the tip of his tongue against the roof of his mouth, something like a J, as Peter appears again behind him, flexing his hands. Martin keeps running, lunges for the recorder in desperation, where it scrapes against the stone as the tape creaks and grinds, gripping it like a lifeline as he turns and meets Peter's furious gaze. But Peter is in his domain, a place under the Institute, the perfect intersection of two pieces of Martin that lets him think very hard –
Forsaken will never have a ritual if Verity gets out.
– and Peter's steps falter, and his eyes and mouth go very wide, and –
The tape recorder clatters to the grey stone floor again as Martin is pushed forward with a cry, tripping through the Lonely and caught by two pale, strong hands. There is a phone in one of them, in a plain sturdy case, and a calm voice crying “Whoa!” as he falls into it. Jon's voice sounds somewhere off to his left, and he thinks it is saying his name, but when he looks up, he sees someone who isn't Verity – isn't even Peter Lukas – and the relief of it is enough to make his vision go black and his knees weak.
“I've got you, Martin,” says Daisy's voice by his ear, warm and close as she holds him up. “Just don't think this makes us friends or anything.”
Martin thinks he hears Basira say something like, “Daisy, leave him alone,” but he's unconscious before it really registers.
Martin does not dream, then, but sleeps like it is his first rest in forty years.
In some ways, it is.
When he wakes, it is to the faint hissing of a tape recorder, and the low, fitful drone of Jonathan Sims' voice. The Archivist. He knows who both of those beings are. He wonders if he has a special name, now.
Martin shifts, and feels not plain stone, but a cushion behind his head, the fabric rough where it touches his cheek and the back of his neck, but still soft and yielding.
Jon's voice cuts off. A chair creaks.
“Martin?” he says, more quietly than before. Martin frowns at that – no, he should have a title, now, surely – then the chair creaks again, louder, and there's an ear-splitting mechanical click, and footsteps pad across to him. Every sound seems too loud after the silence of the tunnel, signs of company and co-habitation which seem uncanny after so long an absence.
A warm hand comes to rest on Martin's right shoulder, and he finally remembers that he has a body, scrunched up on his left by the back of a sofa, his too-long legs tucked up at an angle.
“Martin, are you awake?” Jon asks, and bloody hell, that's good. Martin breathes deep of air that is shared and musty: the smell of old books, wooden furniture, dust, fabric, soap, and sweat. A part of him wishes for clear and cold, for a faint mist and solitude, but that part is being overwhelmed by the warm glow behind his sternum, insistently human.
Clumsily, Martin raises his left arm and fumbles for the hand on his shoulder, groping about a few times before Jon catches him with the familiar rough-smooth of his burned hand. His warmth comes closer, pressed to Martin's hip and side, and he thinks, Oh, he's sitting next to me, and that at last makes him open his eyes, blinking through a dreary crust and momentary blur.
The first thing he sees is the ceiling of Jon's office, the same boring, slightly water stained ceiling as the rest of the archive. Where it meets the wall, it is nearly abutted by file boxes and stacks of paper, propped up by shelving units of dark metal which crumple slightly in the middle and at their abused corners.
Martin blinks again until the papers come into focus, and Jon's hands squeeze his own, finally drawing his attention down, and closer, where –
Where Jon is sitting next to him, both hands clutching Martin's on his chest, his hair too long and almost certainly greyer, the pockmark scars near his cheek standing out, his glasses smudged in one corner, and his eyes – his eyes –
His eyes are dark, and wide, and red around the edges, and they are the most wonderful thing Martin has ever seen. The sight makes him smile, though it feels a little weak, and Jon lets out the breath he's been holding and gathers Martin's hand closer.
“Oh-thank-God,” he sighs all at once. “We had to carry you up from the tunnels, you've been asleep for two hours – How are you feeling?”
Martin reflects on that thought, letting his eyes drift across the office, over Jon, and the desk, his rucksack on the floor, papers everywhere, the overcrowded cork board above the sofa. He can hear Jon breathing, hear every shift of his clothes as he moves, can almost hear the heart beating in his chest, and it's both comfortable and far too much at once. He shakes his head, taking a deep breath of that musty, crowded air, and tightens his fingers in Jon's, warm and entangled. He doesn't quite have the strength to move his other arm, but he manages to shift his knees so he's a little more comfortable.
“Right, yes, sorry,” says Jon, glancing back, “we thought it would be best – well, my office is closer to the trapdoor and the exit, we didn't want to move you too much to get to the bed in – it doesn't matter. We can go there if you like –”
Martin shakes his head again, trying for another smile. He realises that he can move his thumb, back and forth twice over the warm skin of Jon's uninjured hand, which makes Jon hold him ever tighter, and lean in closer. Martin huffs a laugh, and tries to look down at their hands.
“What,” says Jon, the frown line showing between his brows, “what's so funny?”
Though he swallows, and tries to speak, nothing will escape Martin's throat: it's like he can't quite remember how the muscles move, how to open and close, how to bring breath and meaning up from his chest and through until sound comes out. He chokes a little, but nothing happens, no matter how much he tries. So, instead, he squeezes Jon's hands again, holding them against his chest. It occurs to him that they've never done something like this before; it seems like such a leap, yet Jon hasn't once questioned it.
“Oh,” Jon says, staring at their hands and faltering. “Right. Would you – d- do you want me to stop?”
Martin just laughs again, and shakes his head, No. This is lovely just as it is. There is a tingling sensation across his shoulders and the back of his neck, and Jon reads him too well to be just from his expression, but Martin doesn't really mind, as it makes his voice go soft and light, as he says, “That's all right, then.”
There's a gentle knock on the door, three taps, nothing like Prentiss, nothing like nightmares. Jon keeps his hold on Martin's hand, and looks over his shoulder.
“Daisy, is that you?” he calls, keeping his voice low in deference to either Martin's silence or his sensitive ears, he can't tell which.
Her voice is quiet and muffled through the door.
“I thought I heard the tape go off,” she says. “Can I come in?”
“Yes,” says Jon. “He just woke up.”
The door opens at that with more haste than expected, and Daisy's feet carry her quickly into the small room, craning to peer around Jon at Martin's open eyes and responsive face. A sigh drops her broad shoulders under her jacket, and she plants one hand on Jon's shoulder and the other on the back of the sofa so she can lean over them, scanning Martin up and down.
“You gave us quite a scare, you know,” she says, fingers tightening against Jon's shirt as a smile plays about her eyes. “Three months of it, and then this. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Martin's throat is too stuck to reply, but he gives another breathy laugh at her attitude, and meets her eye more easily than he would have expected. She is nothing like Verity, he notices, despite some superficial similarities in clothes, skin colour, and chin, and that realisation is quite the relief.
Even as he thinks that, though, the lines around the her eyes start to fade, and she glances down at Jon.
“Is he okay?” she asks. “He's not saying anything.”
“No, not to me either,” Jon replies, with a shake of his head. God, two people, having a conversation; it's exhausting to hear, but fulfilling, too, the tiredness of hard work in a good cause. Jon is looking at him, saying, “I'm not sure if he can't, or doesn't want to, or – Martin. Could I...?”
His eyes are shining with something otherworldly, and Martin is certain that's not just in his besotted brain. He nods his head, and thinks, I'm fine. I haven't spoken in decades. Let me return slowly. As Jon watches him, Martin feels the tingling at the back of his neck again, and a faint paranoia that makes him want to look around for figures lurking in corners; then Jon nods, and the feeling evaporates.
“He hasn't spoken in – well, it feels like decades,” Jon translates, but Martin purses his lips, and Jon revises, “No, decades, then, he hasn't spoken for decades. But he's okay,” he adds, glancing up at Daisy. “He just needs to... ease into it.”
At that, Daisy's hand relaxes on Jon's shoulder, and she grows slightly looser in her leaning over them both.
“Well, good,” she says awkwardly. “That's good. I'm glad you're – You were a bit of a prick, you know, Martin.” Another laugh puffs out of him at that, not a little ashamed. “But I'm glad you're okay,” Daisy adds, more gently than he's really used to, from her, and Martin realises that they've barely spoken, ever, even though she was the one trying to get him back from Peter, even though he knows that she freed herself from the Hunt, and that that can only have changed her for the better. With a supreme amount of effort, he pulls his free hand out from under Jon, and holds it up to her. She stares at it for a long moment, trembling slightly in the air between them; then takes her hand from the sofa and curls her fingers over his, hooked into place, warm and dry and aching.
It's ridiculous that such a small thing should tear at Martin, but it does. By the time Daisy has let go, and pushed off Jon and out of the office, muttering about telling Basira and Melanie, he feels completely worn out, his breath ragged and his limbs weak and aching. Every point of contact with Jon is too warm, almost stifling, and he disentangles his hand and pushes at Jon's chest with his fingertips, urging him gently away and off the sofa, though Jon's eyes don't leave him as he stands and steps back. Martin breathes a sigh of relief, and closes his eyes, letting himself drop back to where the air is cool and empty.
“Martin?” says Jon's voice, sharp and frightened. “Martin!” – and the hint of despair in it is soothing, eases the ache in Martin's bones, makes his heart beat more strongly.
When he opens his eyes, Jon is leaning over the sofa with wild eyes, hands clenched in the cushion and the back; a second later, he's stumbling backwards into his desk, breathing hard, one hand going to his chest and the other to the desk to hold him up. His eyes are fixed on Martin as if afraid he's going to disappear at any moment, and only then does Martin realise what he did, and a surge of worry rolls through him, pushing him up to sit and reach for Jon.
“Shit – sorry,” he croaks – “sorry, I didn't mean –”
A sigh of relief pulls itself from Jon as he slumps against the desk, hand gripped in his own shirt front. Drained by the sudden effort, Martin drops his arm again, and leans back with a jerky movement through stiff joints and unused muscles.
“Sorry,” he breathes, “I wasn't – ...”
But he's out of energy, and out of words again, and lets Jon finish the sentence for him.
“You weren't thinking,” he pants. “I figured. But Jesus, Martin –” He holds his breath and squeezes his eyes shut, pressing his fingers to them under his glasses for a moment as he pulls himself together. Finally, he sighs, and drops his hand, and says: “You scared me.”
Martin closes his eyes, nodding – I know – and Jon chuckles darkly in understanding. It's overwhelming, and Martin presses his lips together before he can open his eyes, trying to take matters one at a time: first, communication; second, the breathtaking beauty of Jon, haggard and worried and bundled up at the end of the desk.
Right, Martin thinks, and there's that. Remarkable, how easy it is to slip back into the habit of loving Jonathan Sims; though, he supposes, he never quite stopped, did he? It's just different to have the man in front of him again.
Luckily, Jon's scrutiny has retreated by the time Martin looks at him, and he can set the whole matter aside to be dealt with later. He's so bloody tired.
Exhausted, Martin lowers himself back to lying down on the sofa, the movement itself an answer to Jon's unspoken question.
“Okay,” says Jon, soft and low and wonderful. “I'll leave you to it.”
Martin manages to stick out one hand as he shuffles into a comfortable curl on the sofa, waving at Jon to go on with his business. Jon hesitates for a moment, before Martin hears him going out to speak to the others, muffled voices he's happy not to understand. Then the door ticks shut, and there's the creak of Jon's chair, and the scribbling of a pen for many minutes, followed by the click of the recorder and the heady drone of what Martin has always thought of as Jon's Statement Voice. It is to this that Martin falls asleep again: to shared space, company, and the comforting knowledge of the man in the room, and the women just on the other side of the wall, a presence which, despite all his habits, does not cloy or stifle as much as he feared.
There is no way that Martin can go straight back to work, and between them, the archivists all insist that he can't be left alone, failing to keep their voices down as they argue in Jon's office to a background of Martin's wincing. The final agreement is a sort of rota system: each will have a day and night with Martin, easing him back into a social life at least resembling the half-normal way a Magnus employee goes about it. For now, just being in the same room with more than one person is enough to exhaust him, but the team agrees that he can't be allowed to slip back into Forsaken, and Martin knows that the pressure they're putting on him comes from a good place.
The bigger problem is that Martin no longer has a home. Even between them, the archivists couldn't scrounge together enough money to pay his rent for three months, and with Martin K Blackwood of Sudbury Court missing presumed dead, the others had been forced to clear out his flat themselves before the lease was made void, and it was rented out to a young couple from Sudan. Martin can hardly blame them; but it does make things more difficult, and end up with him feeling like a foster puppy as everyone agrees to take him in for a night until more permanent arrangements can be made.
Daisy takes him in first, in a share house in Lewisham with a police officer, a PhD student, and a classical musician, none of whom Martin sees in the twenty-five hours he spends there. (Daisy assures him that this is because her housemates are consistently absent, rather than he's accidentally shifted them into the Lonely.) She is remarkably gentle with him, though some interactions are patently forced, and she follows the rules Jon pulled from Martin's head to the letter: communicate, connect, but do not overwhelm. Her voice stays low, and she doesn't speak unless she needs to, and she endures Martin's smiling silences with equanimity. When she touches him, it is light and warm, and always with a pause beforehand to let him pull back if he needs to.
There's no real question about sharing the enormous bed in her room. They are both as gay as the day is long, and there's enough space for Martin to be able to feel the distant warmth of her presence without having to be close to another body. He only disappears once during the night, and that when they're both fast asleep; the only evidence of it is the faint, fading mist that hovers an inch above the floorboards when they wake.
In the morning, when Martin finally turns on his freshly charged phone, he is flooded with old messages and missed calls, mostly but not entirely from Jon, going back to before Ny-Ålesund. It's too much, and as he scrolls through the notifications, Martin feels a splitting headache building behind his eyes, until Daisy snatches the phone from him and systematically gets rid of them.
She doesn't excoriate or interrogate him, though – doesn't even tease him – and Martin is reminded that she was once a detective. All she does is reach across the table to hold her free hand above Martin's on the handle of his mug as she scrolls through the messages, and when he nods, her fingers against his wrist are a feather-light consolation.
There are two boxes of Martin's things in Daisy's house for him to sort through, clothes and some bare essentials of kitchenware, though, she says, they had to give a lot to charity. Jon calls from the archive in the middle of the afternoon, both ends on speakerphone, for a conversation that is mostly dead air except for Daisy and Basira chatting. Martin signs off with “I'll probably see you tonight,” and when Daisy frowns at him in worry after they hang up, reminding him that Basira's the one taking him, he has to explain the whole nightmare thing, and is treated to a calm but cut-short lecture about power imbalance in relationships.
Martin just smiles through it. It's good to hear her voice.
Basira, it turns out, is very good with her money, and is comfortably paying off the mortgage on a one-bed in Shoreditch. She has a futon in the front room all made up for Martin by the time Daisy drops him off in a taxi, and something steaming away in a slow cooker, and she's bought him a toothbrush and packets of briefs and socks from Asda. They talk intermittently over dinner, leaving Martin exhausted enough that he goes to sleep early, with Basira eyeing him from behind her book in her armchair.
He has the Elias nightmare, and it's almost strange to be dreaming. In it, Jon seems to be trying to outdo Elias in his watching, more intent than ever, and Martin jolts awake at four in the morning, with the words “Don't burn” ringing over and over in his head. When he does, Basira is sitting next to him in her pyjamas, with her left hand on Martin's shoulder and a keen, conclusive look in her eye behind her reading glasses and the folds of a scarf draped lazily over her head. She doesn't say anything, just pats Martin's shoulder and goes back to the book in her other hand, and Martin wonders if she didn't have the same conversation with Jon as he had with Daisy that afternoon.
The two boxes in the corner labelled 'Martin' are packed mostly with his few books and notebooks, shoeboxes of stationery and electronics, and the bare minimum of bed linen and towels, as he finds out the next morning. It's only as Martin is kneeling and sorting through them that he has a mortifying thought, and gasps up at where Basira is working at the kitchen counter, not voicing the question in his throat. He doesn't know whether she's been properly touched by Beholding, or just has good instincts, but she clearly understands him, as she flushes slightly, and says, “Don't worry, it was Melanie cleared out under your bed.”
Martin's face goes hot, and he shuts his eyes and drifts for a moment, to where the flat is mercifully silent.
He takes a breath –
– and sighs it out –
– and then Basira's voice is shouting, “Martin, get back here right now!” with only a little tremor in her voice, and he lets himself back in with a roil of guilt in his belly, right next to a sense of deep satisfaction. When he looks up, Basira is standing over him with an expression of both fear and fury, hands balled into fists at her sides.
“Don't – scare me like that, Martin,” she says, in a low voice, and he grimaces.
“Sorry,” he says. “I wasn't thinking.”
“Right,” she returns – “just don't do it again,” and strides carefully back to her work. Martin leaves it for a minute; then, holding a copy of The Hobbit and trying to delicately change the subject, he says:
“So. You... wielded a Leitner?”
If Melanie's timing that evening is anything to judge by, she left work early to pick up a share car and stop by Basira's. From the front door, she gives the flat an appraising look, and says, “Daisy's a lucky girl,” before turning to Martin and ushering him out with an arm around his waist despite barely coming up to his shoulder in heels. Martin reflects that, two days earlier, the contact might have frightened him off, but now it is nearly comfortable.
The first thing Melanie does when they get to her narrow town house in Holloway is to march to her bedroom with Martin at her heels, and throw a slim black dildo at him with a dour, “There. Thanks for helping me scare off boring boyfriends.” Really, the evening can only go up from there.
They eat too much pizza, and Melanie insists that the sofa is too cold, and her housemate too liable to wake him, for Martin to sleep anywhere but in her bed, where it is warm and close, and Martin can smile weakly at Jon in his nightmare while the wrong, stretched-out Sasha screams. He wakes suddenly just before dawn, loudly enough that Melanie rolls over and latches her arm around his middle, mumbling something unintelligible. She's a very good cuddler, though she swears him to secrecy over it, and it doesn't drain him like he might have expected.
In the morning, she sits on the kitchen counter and narrows her eyes at Martin through the steam from her mug of tea.
“Jon told me about the nightmares thing,” she says, apropos of nothing, and Martin shrugs, concentrating on his own, milky cup.
“I don't think it does, though,” says Melanie, then adds “Hi, Jing,” with a nod at her housemate as she shuffles towards the coffee plunger in oversized flannels.
Jing grunts and lifts her chin in greeting – catches sight of Martin – frowns – and shrugs when he waves at her, turning back to the counter and pulling a jar from the cupboard.
“Coffee?” she asks the room, hoarsely, and Martin only knows she's addressing him by the way Melanie raises her eyebrows in expectation.
“Oh, no, thank you,” he says, trying for a smile which mostly works, judging by Melanie's snort of laughter.
“Anyway, Jon looked better yesterday,” Melanie continues, heedless of the company, “and I don't think just because he can finally stop pining.”
“He hasn't been pining,” Martin starts, but Melanie overrides him.
“You weren't there,” she snaps. “It doesn't matter. He looks better, I think he slept all right for once, but you still look like shit.”
“I feel better,” Martin mumbles at his tea. “We're having a conversation and everything.”
“Yeah, Jing's even here, and you haven't disappeared once.”
Jing waves one hand over her shoulder as she picks up the boiling kettle and fills the plunger to the brim.
“Don't speak too soon,” says Martin, but without much conviction. He really does feel better; even this stranger in Melanie's house isn't too much for him, now.
“Yeah, but you still look awful,” Melanie shrugs. “I don't think this nightmare business is good for you.”
Martin rolls his eyes with a groan, and sets his mug down on the counter so he can hide his face in his hands. “I've had this argument with him more than once,” he complains into his palms. “If it keeps him from re-traumatising strangers, I don't mind.”
“That's not really a long-term solution, though, is it?” says Melanie, and hops off the counter to rinse her mug. “You should do something about that.”
“One thing at a time, please, Melanie,” Martin sighs. “And that's enough talking for one morning.”
“No it's not.” Melanie gives a wicked smile, and pats his shoulder before he can pull away. “We're meant to be pushing you, remember?”
The boxes Martin sorts through that day are mostly clothes, as Melanie scrolls through Twitter and drinks endless cups of tea, explaining that Daisy used his leftover shampoo, and his cactus is doing much better at her friend Janet's house. More sunlight, apparently.
That evening, Jon is – predictably – late. He arrives on Melanie's doorstop having rushed from the Tube station, bedraggled and out of breath, and with a massive stack of files in one arm and a plastic bag that smells of fish and chips hanging from the other hand.
“Sorry, Melanie,” he pants, hair dripping onto his nose from the steady rain outside, “I got caught up in the archive. Hullo, Martin,” he adds, leaning around to see him down the hall behind Melanie. “Do you have an umbrella?”
Jon takes custody of the share car for the trip to Battersea, though he stalls it twice on the way. By now, Martin has an extra bag beyond his rucksack, a duffel borrowed from Daisy and full of the bits and pieces he's picked up from his various boxes. They make intermittent small talk – some even initiated by Martin – but it's not until they make it to a cramped, sparse one-bedroom flat that Jon finally starts to relax, after he's shouldered his way through a front door that sticks slightly in its frame. Jon points out where everything is, then deposits the food and the stack of files on a small kitchen table with a grunt, and makes a beeline for the kettle. Martin follows him into the kitchen, noting the bare minimum of furnishings: two plain chairs, a kettle and toaster, and a set of white mugs on a shelf. It's almost uncanny.
“You've been here since you got out of hospital?” he asks, peering at a box of cassette tapes under the table.
“Nearly,” Jon answers, as he fiddles with the teabags. “Um – sugar? Milk?”
“Just sugar, thanks,” says Martin. “It's not very personal, is it?”
Jon glares at him over his shoulder. “Says the man who literally retreated into a different dimension.” His tone is pointed, if not quite accusatory. “I don't think you're in any position to judge. Do you know how long it took to find you? And how hard it was?”
Martin shrugs at that.
“I've been trying not to think about it.”
Jon snorts. “Well, it was very difficult,” he says. “I'm still expecting Basira to start showing symptoms from the Leitner, and I was hungover all the next day.”
“I didn't ask you to find me,” Martin points out. “In fact, as I remember it, I told you to do the exact opposite –”
He cuts himself off when Jon turns, arms crossed and glaring at him with such concentrated disdain that he thinks he might melt on the spot. The urge to drift strikes him with such force that he has to grab the back of a nearby chair to stay put, tightly enough that his knuckles go white. The effort is momentary but taxing, and Jon frowns at him as the kettle clicks off, the heavy bubbling fading away with a hiss.
“Martin?” he says, almost wary. “Martin.”
Martin swallows, and waves his free hand in an attempt at something dismissive.
“'m fine,” he forces out through his tight throat. “Sorry, wanted to –” He takes a deep breath, and lets go of the chair. “I'm fine.”
Jon stares at him for a little longer, then nods.
“Right,” he says tightly, his hands in fists under his arms. “Tea.”
The sofa is far too short for Martin, and although Jon claims to have a blow-up mattress in a cupboard, he also admits that it was last used on June 6, 2009, when Georgie was moving house. (He rolls his eyes as he says it, adding, “I know, the Ceaseless Watcher is such a useful patron.”) The offer of the bed comes only after Jon has rolled out his shoulders and cleared his throat, and Martin's brain, being utterly predictable, throws up a whole series of images of the ways that could turn out, most involving nudity and frantic confessions. He pushes those aside, determined to be practical about the matter, and admits that the bed would be best.
“I shared with Daisy and Melanie,” he is quick to add, “Basira even stayed with me when I was on her futon, and it – I think it helped.” In fact, he's certain it did, but he doesn't want to seem too keen.
Jon just nods, and agrees, and leads the way down the hall. Martin showers, they both get ready, and in twenty minutes, Martin is shutting the door to the little bedroom as Jon sticks a hot water bottle under the covers, mumbling that his feet get cold. The duvet and blankets are all in varying shades of grey and navy blue, and Martin tries not to think that Jon was being deliberately boring when he bought them.
“Well?” Jon asks, with a vague sweep of his hand. “Which side do you prefer?”
Martin feels his eyebrows rising, as he remarks, “I don't know what you think of my sex life, Jon, but I don't exactly share a bed enough to have a preference,” and Jon shuts his eyes, saying “It's not something I try to think about, actually,” before throwing his hands in the air and marching around to take the right. They settle in under the mountain of covers, Jon sets aside his glasses, and Martin punches his pillow a few times to get it comfortable. Then he rolls over onto his side and squeezes his eyes shut to avoid thinking about Jon – Jonathan Sims – Jon the head archivist, with the wonky glasses and weird scars and dour aspect Martin's wanted to peel back since they met – lying just behind him, in tracksuit bottoms and two jumpers, shoving his feet under a hot water bottle.
After all of Melanie's wheedling, though, Martin is truly exhausted. He's asleep within minutes.
Why yes, this IS self-indulgent nonsense, and no I will NOT be apologising for it.
In his dream, Martin stands in an empty tunnel, with a bag in one hand and his phone in the other, the glare of the torch both blinding and insufficient in the darkness. Before him, Peter Lukas is fraying at the edges, fury radiating off him as he reaches for Martin, to hurt, to choke, to kill, as Jon stands behind him, enthralled by Martin's terror, something heavy and needy in his breath. His eyes are far too big.
On instinct, Martin steps backwards, darting into a different place, where the shadow of the tunnel ahead of him is unbroken by avatars and killers. But a second later, Peter follows him, swiping through to his part of the Lonely with wild intent, and behind him, Jon does the same, mirroring Peter's movements too exactly. Fear for his life, and fear of Beholding, are matched by something new, a horror of seeing Jon moving freely through Forsaken, at ease in the wrong power, the wrong place. This shouldn't be happening, he thinks, and steps back again into his own Lonely; and moments later, Peter and Jon follow, closer now, Peter screaming and Jon just watching, watching and never interceding.
“I'm going to KILL YOU!”
Martin gasps out a cry and steps back again, and is followed again – starts walking backwards, is followed again on every other step – and now Peter is almost upon him, fingers snatching at his clothes as Jon just watches, lean and cruel with hunger. Martin keeps staggering back, ducking, trying to keep his eyes on Peter as he follows him through the Lonely, reaching and snatching for his throat.
Martin starts to cry, and finally turns and runs.
One after another, Martin flits between Lonelies, with Peter's snarls at his back and his fingertips catching on his clothes. Once, Peter catches him, and hauls him up against the cold tunnel wall, one arm across the flat of his shoulder as the other hand goes to Martin's neck, squeezing and crushing and wheezing as Jon licks his lips and watches –
Martin shoves at Peter's wrists, forcing him off, and keeps running. Verity flashes past him more than once, screaming and screaming, and the shock of it trips him up so that he stumbles, and Peter's hands nearly find a grip in the back of his coat. He thinks he hears Jon telling him to stop trying to escape, but he ignores him, and pushes himself into a sprint through twenty planes, so fast that he can only hear the briefest snatches of Peter's shrieking threats, until –
Silence. Pitched forward by momentum, Martin takes a moment to regain his footing before he can scramble to a halt, spinning around to face –
There is no one.
He tests a few more Lonelies, but there is no sign of Peter, or Verity, or Jon. He tries to open his world, but there is no one to open it up to. He keeps going, wider and wider, but there is no one, and the absolute isolation of it is suddenly crushing to him. He knows that he will see no one, ever again, and that he will not be seen but for the faint prickling at the back of his neck, the gaze of the watcher who does not interfere, and does not aid, and does not keep company. For the very first time, despite everything that has happened, the horror of it dawns on him: of an eternity spent utterly alone.
After everything, he finally knows why it is called Forsaken.
He jolts awake with a gasping shout, “Oh – fuck –”, lurching up until he can throw off the unfamiliar covers, stifling and warm. “Fuck.” He wants to be calm again, cool and safe and alone –
Behind him, Jon is blinking awake with a groan, face mashed in the pillows but already reaching out for Martin. He beckons, and mumbles groggily, “C'm're,” and when Martin just keeps shaking and pushing the blankets off his feet, Jon pushes up onto his elbow so he can hook his hand around Martin's upper arm and tug.
“Come here –”
But when Martin turns to him, his eyes, under heavy lids, are too big for his face, dark and piercing, and some primal instinct thrills its way down Martin's throat and chest. He screams and throws Jon off, scrambling back so fast that he tumbles off the side of the mattress and into the cramped bit of floor between the bed and wall, banging his knee and nearly hitting his head. He twists around, trying to see, to be ready as Jon follows, calling his name in a voice high with concern, and when Jon appears over the side, reaching out for him, his eyes may be the right size again, but Martin can't help it. He's terrified, and hurt, and he flinches back, raising his arm in defence and thinking, GO AWAY –
And he's alone again. The room is cool and dark, and there is no sound but his own harsh breathing.
It is peaceful.
It is safe.
It is bliss.
Except that's wrong, something is screaming at him, very, very wrong, because he doesn't even know where he sent Jon except away. He pulls at the world, but Jon doesn't appear, not in the second, or third, or fifteenth frantic Lonely that Martin checks, whipping through the fabric of the world. In desperation, he forces himself to open up, to become aware of every other being in the building around them, on the same block, in all of Battersea, of London, everyone trapped in their own dreams and nightmares and worlds until finally –
Jon reappears on the bed, wide-eyed and gasping. He cries out in relief when he sees Martin, his chest heaving under him and hands gripped in the sheets, and the terror that underlies it fills Martin up like a breath of air after too long underwater, like getting the feeling back in a numbed limb, like a full meal after days of fasting.
“What did you do?” Jon gasps, and Martin's stomach drops.
“I'm sorry,” he whispers back, staring at Jon on his hands and knees, wild with uncertainty. “I'm sorry, Jon – I'm not – I- I don't know –”
Jon swallows, hard, and waves his protests away.
“It doesn't matter,” he forces out, “it doesn't –” And, with a great effort of will, he relaxes by a few fractions, and holds his hand out to Martin on the floor. “Come back to bed.”
It doesn't make sense. Martin is a monster, he knows that he is, consigning the Archivist to torture for his own comfort and convenience. Yet Jon is still kneeling above him, holding out his hand and asking Martin back into his bed. It doesn't make sense.
But Jon just slows his breathing, and eases closer, and stretches out his hand, says: “Please, Martin – come back.”
He is broken. He must be. Because, though he shakes with held-back tears, Martin reaches out his trembling hand, and lets Jon grip him firmly and pull him halfway to his feet so he can tumble back onto the bed.
There is nothing for it. Jon opens up, and tugs at Martin's shoulders, and he cannot stop himself as he crawls into Jon's arms, buries his face in his jumper, and cries. Through it all, Jon strokes his injured hand through Martin's hair, carding through the tight, messy curls, and although he isn't very skilled at comfort, the noises he makes with his mouth aim for shushing, and his platitudes are awkward but sincere. Martin cries and cries, for long minutes that he cannot count, and tries to remember who he is; until at long last his lungs take pity on him, and he gulps into Jon's chest and asks:
“Am I wrong?”
Jon pulls back just enough to crane and see Martin's face, though it feels like he must use more Seeing than normal just to look at him. When he speaks, it is hoarse, and gentle.
Martin cannot meet his eye. His voice feels tiny.
“Am I wrong? Is there something wrong with me?”
There's a moment of nothing, before Jon shrugs, and gathers him closer, head pillowed on his bony shoulder.
“Only as much as I am,” he answers, which shocks a wet laugh out of Martin.
“But you're –”
“Yes, Martin, I know,” Jon sighs. “That's the point.” He pauses; keeps pushing his fingers through the short hair at the back of Martin's skull. “There's definitely something wrong with us, but... well. If this whole business has taught me anything, it's that there's certainly a lot of human left in me. Depending on your definition.”
Calmness is coming to Martin in increments. For the moment, he settles with untangling one hand from the front of Jon's jumper and draping his arm carefully around Jon's waist. His breath shakes as he drags it in, but it doesn't make him sob anymore, and he pushes his face into the soft, warm fabric, and half hopes that it muffles his next, small words into nonsense.
“I don't want to become like Peter.”
The fingers in Martin's hair stop for a moment; then Jon presses the flat of his palm against Martin's head, restraint evident in the not-quite-gentle hold.
“You won't,” he says, sounding very certain of himself.
“You can't promise that,” is Martin's rejoinder, so Jon just holds him closer.
“You won't,” he repeats. “I'm going to make sure of it. In return for one favour?”
“What is it?”
Jon doesn't answer at once, leaving space for a steadying breath.
“Don't let me become like Elias.”
Martin squeezes his eyes shut, trying to hold in another wave of tears. What have they come to?
In lieu of an honest answer, Martin tightens his arm around Jon's waist, pulling them closer together. He will ignore that any of this happened, in the morning; will clean up, and swallow it down, and forget the feeling of Jon's arms, he's sure of it, and hopes that Jon will do the same. He needs peace and solitude just as much as he needs arms around him, and conditional trust, and unpracticed comfort. He is at war with himself, and it's exhausting.
But for now, Martin clutches onto the company, and Jon's side, and makes a promise that he knows, when it comes down to it, neither of them will be able to keep.
Martin drifts back to sleep against Jon as the grey of sunrise turns to washed-out yellow. When he wakes again an hour later, he is alone in the bed, and the shower is running.
Jon makes tea that is too strong and not sweet enough, but he doesn't have any milk, so at least Martin doesn't have to deal with that. Although the taste of Jon's fear was invigorating, it is not enough to undo the effects of the nightmare and the panic attack combined, and Martin feels drained, only half awake, half ghostly. The Archivist, of course, looks about as healthy as he ever does.
When Jon goes to make refills, Martin stays on the sofa, drifting. Jon does a sweep of the flat a minute later, and has one frantic arm in his coat and one on the front door before Martin realises what's happening and resumes his place, calling, “I'm here.”
The look Jon gives him, after he's hung his coat up once more and retrieved the mugs from the kitchen table, is stuck in limbo between annoyance, anger, and despair.
Martin drinks his tea in silence.
It's a Sunday, which means that Jon is strictly barred from going to work, no matter how much he wants to. Instead, he reads a statement in his living room, forgetting that Martin is there. He rifles through the stack of files, looking for something that he can't explain, but will know when he finds it. He listens to scraps of old tapes, and updates the mostly-empty labels.
Martin spends the afternoon sitting rather listlessly on the sofa, but he stays in the right plane the whole time, and considers that an achievement. He hasn't put on socks, and his feet are cold in the late-winter chill.
It's after they've decided to order curries, but before the food arrives, that Jon washes some dishes, then returns to stand in the doorway to his living room and say, “Listen, about last night.”
“This morning,” Martin corrects, and Jon rolls his eyes.
“Whatever,” he says, “we need to talk about it.”
“I'm not me anymore, I thought we established that,” he says, a little snappily, and punctuates it with a glare at Jon. But instead of responding in kind, Jon just tilts his head and frowns.
“Don't deflect,” he says. “I'm not talking about Forsaken. In fact, I think – well, I think this might be a good way to ward off Forsaken. Communication and connection, remember?”
Martin doesn't answer. He just looks away at the rest of the plain room, trying not to engage. It's easier this way, says the Peter Lukas in his head, and he wants to ignore it, wants to refuse, tries to dredge up the feeling of Basira's hand on his shoulder and Melanie's arm around him, and Daisy's hand on his own; but recovery, it seems, is not a direct road, and even as he reaches for them, the memories grow hazy, as if seen through a layer of fog.
Jon takes two more steps into the room.
“Martin,” he says, jolting him back to the present. “Would you answer something honestly?”
“Go ahead,” Martin shrugs, not caring anymore. “You can compel me, if you like.”
“I'll know if you're lying,” Jon starts, but Martin shakes his head and overrides him.
“No, I want you to compel me,” he says, defeated. “Because I don't want to tell you, but you deserve an answer.”
“Martin, I'm not going to deliberately compel you –”
But Martin overrides him once more, quite invested in his resignation to his fate.
“Just do it, Jon,” he says glumly. “God knows neither of us can claim to think you're normal, anymore.” He means it to be biting, but, to judge by Jon's equanimity, the blow doesn't land. Martin can hold a grudge, but he's not really cut out for insults. Jon takes another step into the room, which is small enough that each one counts for a mile.
“I – I do listen to office gossip, you know,” he says, then twists his hand vaguely and adds, “Well, some of it. I know what –” He won't look at Martin's face. “What people have said, about you, and me. And I do listen to the tapes. I heard wh– what Elias said to you, when you – I mean, when he –”
For someone whose job is in words, Jon has a terrible way with them. Martin surges forward with a sigh, leaning his elbows on his knees and his head between his hands, and speaks mostly to the floor.
“Just ask the question, Jon.”
There is a long, silent moment. Then Jon takes another step forward, and it feels like he's almost on top of Martin, watching him so closely.
“Martin,” he says, and his voice has a little more resonance, now, a deeper timbre, a stronger tone, and Martin closes his eyes as it sends a shiver down his spine for more than one reason. It prickles across the backs of his shoulders and into his gut. “How do you feel about me?”
After all this time, it's so easy to let the answer come, pulled from his chest and shaped by half-willing lips even if he still can't raise his head. He tells Jon, “I love you,” like it's the most basic fact of the universe.
“I- in... that, w–”
“Yes in that way, Jon,” Martin rolls his eyes, and breathes, “Jesus Christ.”
It's strange, to have it out in the world. He's wanted to keep it a secret for as long as he's felt it, sheltered and safe and unsaid: the fascination with the guy in research, the weird crush on his boss, the infatuation with the growing eldritch being in the Institute basement. The dedication to the dead man. Now that it's been spoken, Martin doesn't feel all that different. He just feels as if, of the few walls he's ever really had around his soul, one that was already crumbling has finally been taken down, the bricks repurposed for something, though he couldn't say what. When he glances briefly up, Jon is looking at him, slightly baffled, slightly curious, but mostly carefully blank, and Martin doesn't know what to do with that.
Jon's mouth form a short series of sounds before he manages to get something out.
“M- Martin,” he stammers, “you know... I – I mean, you know that I'm –”
“Yeah, I know,” Martin whines, “you're the Archivist now, you're not fully human – whatever. There's enough of you left that I'm still in love with it, and God knows a bit of supernatural horror hasn't been enough to turn me off yet.” Moroseness isn't a good look on anyone, but Martin's decided to embrace it. “Deal with it.”
Jon blinks, and steps yet closer as if under compulsion.
“No, I mean,” he says – “I- I'm – I'm asexual.”
It's not exactly what Martin was expecting. The surprise is enough to make him look up at Jon, and it's possible that Jon's never actually said those words out loud, because he looks even more perplexed than Martin feels.
“Oh,” says Martin, trying to find the right response. He thinks about his own coming-outs, what he needed to hear. “I can't say I'm really surprised, that actually explains – but – thank you, for telling me. It doesn't... change much, does it?” He manages a tiny laugh, an attempt to lighten the mood which, inexplicably, works. There is relief in the slope of Jon's narrow shoulders, and the way he drops down into the space between Martin and the wingback arm of the sofa, like his strings have been finally cut. “I'm gay, by the way,” Martin adds, a little hastily, “just, while we're – doing... that,” and Jon matches his awkward laugh, and says, “Yes, I was aware.”
Which, of course, begs the question...
“Eye stuff, or –”
“You're not subtle, Martin.”
Part of him wants to be offended by that, but he really has no argument against it. His laugh, this time, is significantly more relaxed and genuine.
“Okay,” he says. “That's out there now, I guess.”
Martin slumps back against the cushions, while Jon sits stiffly on his right, not quite touching. He's not sure where all of this is going, and would much rather avoid the issue altogether; and at that thought, he has to screw his eyes shut and concentrate very hard on not drifting. Jon seems to notice, though, and the warmth of his hand just above Martin's knee, fingertips pressed into flesh through his jeans, is remarkably helpful.
“Stay here, Martin,” he asks. “I'm not finished.”
“What is it, then?” Martin grits out, keeping his eyes shut and clinging onto that warmth.
“Communication and connection, that's what we agreed,” Jon repeats, and it's really not helping –
“What, Jon, why did you bring it up?!”
“Because I –!” Jon rushes to say, then stops himself, and takes a fortifying breath. “I missed you.”
“No, this is important,” Jon babbles, “because I thought for so long that you were the only one, the only person I hadn't wounded, and traumatised, and then you were –”
“Yeah, as if seeing your corpse wasn't going to mess me up –”
“Well, I realise that now, but before, I didn't – I wanted to talk to you, and you weren't there, and I missed you so much, Martin, because I'm – I – I- I- I like you.” He gives a sigh, now that the words are out and dealt with. “A lot.”
“This would be so much easier if I wasn't –”
“Stop it, Martin, you're not going anywhere,” Jon snaps at him. “We're doing this, doesn't matter if it's hard. I like you.”
“Yeah, but do you like me, or do you like like me?” says Martin, with a drawling note of sarcasm. Except then Jon huffs a laugh, and his hand relaxes on Martin's knee, and it's enough to let Martin open his eyes and turn his head to look at Jon askance. Jon's face is open, and worried, and calm, and his dark skin isn't ashen for once, but almost flushed, while his eyes are bright behind new, clean glasses Martin hasn't noticed until now.
“The second one.”
It's ridiculous that he should be taking such a childish question so seriously, and even more ridiculous that it causes Martin's heart to skip.
“You're –” He pushes through the stutter in his chest. “Y-you're not just saying that to –”
“I mean it,” Jon insists. “I wouldn't say it if it wasn't true.”
Martin doesn't point out that he's hardly said anything at all.
“Okay,” he says instead. “So I mean – wh- where do we go from here?”
Jon – absurd as he is – shrugs, with a face that reminds Martin of a deer in headlights.
“I'm –” he starts, “I mean, I'm willing to find compromises, but I'm – I'll say it now, I'm not going to sleep with you.” Before Martin can react, he's correcting himself with a shake of the head. “Not – I mean – obviously not literally, we've already done that –”
“Yes, Jon, I know what you meant!” Martin says over him, trying not to laugh, and definitely trying not to think about all the things that are off the table, because if he indulges one fantasy about messing up those boring sheets, or ravishing Jon against the kitchen counter, he'll never make it back to this conversation alive. “But you... I mean, does that mean you want to do... other? R- Romantic stuff?”
Jon lets out a heavy breath, nodding earnestly. “Yes, yes please.”
“Right.” Martin doesn't know what to do with that. Nothing has changed, and yet, everything has. He glances down at Jon's hand on his leg, and, as if caught out, Jon goes to lift it, to move away, so Martin does the first thing that comes into his head and catches it halfway, bringing them both down together. He stares at their two hands, wound one over the other, and marvels at them.
When he looks up again, there's a smile playing around Jon's mouth, which catches Martin's gaze and gives him a fantastic idea.
“Can I kiss you?”
Jon looks him in the eye.
“I'd like that.”
It's so strange. This thing in Martin's chest has been taboo for so long, something he could never have admitted to, not to Jon's face. What had started out as a slightly embarrassing crush had, without his permission, become something which pervaded every part of him, a constant that ran through his life, until Jon was all but dead and Martin's grief was overwhelming. He had held out hope, of course – he's always held out hope, to a fault – but it only made matters worse. And now, without warning, that which he had told himself was forbidden, is happening, the door that he was told never to open suddenly unchained, unlocked, and open. He lifts his hand, breathless, and touches his fingertips to the scars littered across Jon's jaw, feeling each bump and pit, watching Jon swallow and close his eyes. Jon is still shorter than him here, though not as much as when they are standing (Martin has been told repeatedly that he is “mostly leg”), and to compensate, Jon tilts his head up as if in tranquil supplication.
Martin's stomach swoops. It's just as good a look on him as power.
With which thought he flattens his palm over Jon's cheek and jaw, and kisses him. The woody smell of Jon's aftershave is overwhelming from so close, and he shuts his eyes, inhaling as he presses his closed mouth to Jon's, that scent filling him up beside the faintest taste of tea. He breathes out against Jon's cheek, and tips his chin before he draws away, savouring how Jon's top lip catches on his own. Though he wants to stay, he also doesn't want to pressure Jon, and opens his mouth for a much-needed breath as he pulls back; but Jon seems to have other ideas, and before he can think, Jon's hand is fisted in the front of his t-shirt, holding him in place as he follows, and slants his lips over Martin's, warm and wet and open-mouthed, kissing him once – and twice – and by the time they part, Jon's glasses are askew and slightly fogged, and Martin is out of breath from surprise as much as anything else.
“Oh,” says Jon, soft and bemused, and so close that Martin can barely make out his eyelids fluttering behind his glasses. “It turns out that kissing is quite nice when it's with someone you like.”
Martin cocks his head, then pulls back, frowning. That doesn't seem right.
“Jon,” he starts, reluctantly lifting his hand from Jon's face, “are you – are you telling me you've never –”
“No, no, I have,” Jon hastens to reassure him, also retreating, though his hands do not leave Martin's leg or shirt, “I'm just – it's been a while, all right? I'd – sort of... forgotten. The last kisses I had were – let's see, must've been... Imogen, from my old job, on our first and only date, that was a disaster; and... I suppose – Tim.”
The words take a moment to make sense in Martin's head, and he sits back, returning his hand to his lap as his face settles into a perplexed frown.
“Tim?” he echoes, voice going high. He's not sure which of them to be more jealous of. “How – when –”
“Oh, office Christmas party,” says Jon, finally disentangling his hand from Martin's shirt to wave it off, “years ago, when we were both still in research. I think he had a bet on.”
Martin gasps, eyes going wide: he remembers this. “Oh, right,” he says slowly, memories flooding back. “He bet Shubshri from practical that – oh no.”
Jon's eyebrows twitch, and he stares at Martin. “What,” he says, not quite a question, and so not quite a compulsion.
“Uh –” Martin stutters. “Th-they had a bet on who could kiss... the- the least kissable people in the Institute,” he finishes in a rush, launching immediately into, “I did argue that you were very kissable! And we didn't even really know each other then! B-but Tim argued that you had the look of someone who'd probably rather punch you than kiss you, which, you know, he wasn't wrong, so...”
Jon snickers softly at that, and his fingers tighten on Martin's leg under his hand in reassurance. “It's fine,” he says. “It's true – he wasn't wrong. So who won?”
“Well, Tim got you, and Annie from philanthropy – you know, Chinese I think? Middling height, always looks like she wants to murder you if you ask her a question?” There's zero recognition on Jon's face, so Martin hurries on. “A- anyway, but Shubshri got Elias, so she won by default.” He frowns at that. “Although, now that I think about it... Elias must've known about the bet, so – so he was probably just going along with it to sabotage Tim, and... oh.”
They both deflate at the mention of Elias, staring glumly at the floor.
“Well, that was an effective mood killer,” Jon drawls. “I'll have to remember it.”
The fact that the deep well of sorrow in Martin's chest is mostly Survivor's Guilt 101, doesn't make it hurt any less.
“Sorry,” he says.
“No, don't be,” Jon sighs, “I brought it up.” There is a pause; and Martin thinks about how much easier things were in the tunnel, where there were no people to lose, no Christmas parties to face, and no Archivists with which to navigate horrible conflicts of feeling, of grief, and love, and remorse, and excitement. There is a voiceless whisper at the back of his mind, which says Leave it alone, and It will only get worse, and Relationships are difficult, and Leave, leave, leave –
Jon's mouth presses briefly against Martin's cheek, and he is jolted out of his thoughts and back onto the sofa with Jon, their hands still in a pile on his leg. Jon isn't smiling, but there is something soft and tentative in his eyes.
“You were miles away.”
“I think that's going to keep happening,” he says, and thinks again: Am I wrong? Is there something wrong with me?
But then Jon's mottled hand comes up, and brushes uneven skin next to Martin's eye where lines are starting to form, over his temple and into his hair, anchoring them both.
“Stay here,” he murmurs, gaze moving from where his fingers rest, to Martin's eyes, “and let's do something about that.”
As Martin looks at Jon, he wonders what power brought them together, what achingly cruel entity allowed him to be blessed by such a remarkable man. Jon is not what most people would call handsome: he is too skinny to look healthy (because he isn't), and his nose is gracelessly beaky, his face pitted with scars, hair greying and receding into a widow's peak, neither short enough to be called neat, nor long enough to be styled and trendy. But he is also the most beautiful man Martin has ever seen, elegant, deliberate, and vehemently focused when the situation calls for it, and really, he's always liked men with big noses. And right now, Jon's bright, dark, rounded eyes are cutting to the centre of Martin, compelling him as well as any preternatural power.
Martin falls into the kiss much as he once fell into the Lonely: willingly, gratefully, and with all of himself. Jon is clumsy again at first, but he pulls at Martin, by the head, the shirt, the ribs, the arms, until he's manoeuvred them into a recline in the corner of the sofa, with Martin half in Jon's lap to keep his balance. After a minute, they part just enough to abandon Jon's glasses to the grey carpet, and Martin spares half a thought to hope they don't get scratched before he is thoroughly distracted. Jon is cautious with his tongue, but deft, almost to the point of teasing, wet and warm, tasting of black tea and something sour-sweet as he licks at the soft, inside edge of Martin's lower lip, and the tips of his upper teeth. The small, needy sounds he pulls from Martin's throat should probably be embarrassing, except that, in response, Martin elicits gasps of interest from Jon with the angle of his head, and the curl of his hand on Jon's side.
With every kiss, Martin feels Forsaken tugging him backwards, deep in his chest and around his shoulder blades, urging him to flee, retreat, abandon all this nonsense. With every kiss, that tugging gets weaker, and the voice in his ear quiets, replaced not by a watcher's scrutiny, but by Jon's hands, and lips, and tongue, his knee poking Martin in the side as he shifts, his fingers curled at the edge of Martin's hair at the back of his neck.
It is not a permanent solution, but for the time being, it will have to do; least of all because Martin is uninterested in doing anything else but kissing Jonathan Sims until the sun goes down, or their curries arrive, or Basira calls and asks who's taking him tonight.
The answer is Jon. Of course the answer is Jon.
Swinging wildly between fluff and angst is a totally legitimate writing strategy.
Nearly there, folks. <3
Martin dreams of Elias, again. He sobs and sobs and sobs, trying to make himself small, shattered into a thousand pieces and each piece living over and over in that horrible memory. At Elias's shoulder, Jon leans on the table, watching, and doing nothing, except to whisper, “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” until Martin is drained of everything that is not terror, or horror, or pain, and Elias finally growls –
“Don't burn any more –”
Martin wakes with a jolt and a gasp, and behind him, Jon is already picking up the whisper, turning over and placing his hand against Martin's back.
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry...”
“I could get you back for it, you know. On purpose,” Martin muses an hour later, after they have both calmed and lie closer, hands entwined and trying not to breathe sour in each other's faces. He feels worn out, like he's barely slept, but Jon seems contented, with his eyes closed and his nose tucked into the space between Martin's pillow, shoulder, and neck. He mumbles his understanding there, and Martin follows the thought to its horrible conclusion: “I don't know which way around would be worse, though.”
Jon shifts his head to lift his mouth out of the pillow and Martin's skin, and murmurs, “How do you mean?” Half-asleep, it sends a shiver down Martin's spine and into his chest that has less to do with intimacy, and more with the enforced need to answer, truly and entirely. Which is fine. It's probably best if he doesn't hedge around the violence of this, and at least Martin knows what he's getting into, talking to The Archivist.
“Which would be worse, disappearing you, or disappearing me,” he answers, matter-of-fact. “I don't know which one would hurt you more, which would be... more...”
He doesn't quite have the word for it, and the compulsion is wearing off, leaving him floundering in queasy disgust and the unease of poor expression.
“Satisfying?” Jon finishes for him, and Martin hums, “M-hm,” in agreement. Jon isn't horrified by him, though. He just settles closer against Martin's side, reaching his arm across him, and kisses his shoulder through the ratty old shirt he wears. “Perks of dating the Lonely Wanderer, I suppose.”
Martin – baffled – cranes his neck to try and look him in the face.
Jon shrugs. He still hasn't opened his eyes.
“The Lonely Wanderer?” he repeats against Martin's neck. “I thought it could be your title. You know, because you wander alone, but you also wander... in the Lonely...”
Martin blows out a breath towards the ceiling, mulling it over.
“It's all right, I suppose,” is his conclusion. “Doesn't really have the same kind of power as The Archivist, though, y'know? That's short, it's snappy. The Lonely Wanderer. Sounds like an indie band.”
“Well, it's not an indie band,” Jon sneers, as he finally sits up and manoeuvres Martin's arm so that it goes around his shoulders, and he can rest his head on Martin's shoulder and tuck himself in closer to his side with a huff, arm draped over Martin's chubby middle. “It's you.”
“The Lonely Wanderer,” Martin repeats. It's growing on him. He tucks his free hand up under the sleeve of Jon's jumpers, stroking gently at his skin. “It'll do until we think of something better.”
They go to work that day, and even though they leave early to miss the worst of peak hour, Martin still has to squeeze shut his eyes and clench his fists and force himself not to drift (not to Wander) amidst the crowds on the Tube. The darkness and peace of the Institute at half seven, especially down in the archives, is such a blessed relief that Martin doesn't feel the pressure of being back.
Jon insists that Martin work from his office, though, where he can keep a physical eye on him, tucked in at the smaller desk in the corner. Jon reads statements, and Martin processes a boxful of old files, re-ordering, labelling, digitising the indices, and noting opportunities for follow-up research, letting the low lilt of Jon's voice wash over him. He takes a few minutes between each statement to browse real estate websites. Stockwell was nice, but maybe he'll move a little closer to Jon, now...
Gradually, the rest of the archivists drift in. Basira and Daisy both brighten upon seeing Martin, and go to their work with some reluctance. When Melanie marches in at ten o'clock, she takes one look at Martin – with heavy bags under his eyes and stubble on his cheeks – and one at Jon – fresh, bright, and keen – and scowls, straightening her shoulders, hands opening and closing in fists at her sides.
“That's fine,” she growls, making Martin's heart drop a little. “It's good to have you back, Martin. For the love of God, Jon, take better care of him.”
Jon, at least, looks a little chastened. He glances at Martin, who starts to recount Melanie's talk in her kitchen, and, for that matter, Daisy's rant about power, and Melanie throws her hands in the air and stalks away, tossing back at them an angry cry of, “Long-term solutions!”
She's right. She's really, really right.
At Melanie's insistence, they all go for lunch together to the kebab shop around the corner, Daisy leading a half-reluctant Martin at the front, and Jon trailing along at the back, looking uncomfortable. Martin manages to order for himself, and they all crowd around two small, square tables, chatting intermittently until their food is ready, and Jon brings up Martin's new title and all hell breaks loose.
“The Lonely Wanderer?” Melanie repeats incredulously, between mouthfuls of pizza. “It sounds like a bad indie band!”
Martin gestures mutely. He hasn't actually spoken for ten minutes – five people around a table in public is a bit too much for him at the moment – but his mouth is full of kebab meat anyway.
“That's what Martin said,” Jon sighs. “Although, I'll point out, you didn't mention the quality of the fictional band. But I don't see the lot of you making any better suggestions.”
“I don't know why it has to have the name of the – the power or whatever in it,” says Basira, somehow managing to make eating doner and chips look delicate. “Seems a bit obvious. Anyway, yours doesn't.”
“Yes, well, I didn't pick mine, did I?” says Jon tetchily, before taking a massive bite of kebab.
“What are the other options?” argues Melanie. “I mean, what other avatars do we know about, what are their titles?”
“What, like Breekon and Hope?” says Daisy, looking puzzled. “Or Agnes Montague? Most of them just have names, don't they?”
“Nikola Orsinov could have called herself the Dancer,” says Jon. “Or the Ringmaster.”
“Yeah, or the creepy pervert who was after your skin.”
“There's the Boneturner,” Basira suggests between chips. “Jared Hopworth.” Everyone winces, and she looks apologetic. “Sorry, I know, we're trying to eat. Count yourself lucky you haven't seen the rib, though.”
The rest of the table groans at that, and glares at Jon, who has the decency to look slightly penitent behind his food.
“Helen's just 'Helen',” Melanie shrugs. “And Michael was just 'Michael' before that.”
“Not entirely true,” Jon rebuts, “he also called himself the Distortion.”
“Oh. I thought that was just another name for the Spiral.”
“This is getting ridiculous,” Daisy mutters.
“How about Rayner?” Basira suggests. “He didn't really have a title, did he? Other than 'cult leader'.”
“Jane Prentiss?” says Melanie, and Jon answers, “The Hive,” before Martin grimaces, and gives a wide gesture, as if to say, I'm trying to eat!, and Jon apologises and relents.
“Look, I'm perfectly happy just calling him 'Martin',” says Daisy through a mouthful of kebab. “Why does he need a title, anyway? Aren't we supposed to be encouraging you to both stay human?”
“Seems a little unfair, though,” Melanie shrugs. “If Jon gets one and he doesn't. He did technically do it to save our lives. Apparently.”
Her pointed look leaves no room for doubt as to how she feels about that decision.
“I just don't think Lonely Wanderer has the right ring to it,” says Basira. “I mean, not bad for a first attempt –”
“Thanks,” Jon drawls.
“– but we can do better between us, right?”
Martin, with one hand still occupied with the crumbling remains of his kebab, taps on the table with one finger as he chews, trying to get their attention. All eyes turn to him at once, and he grimaces, feeling their combined observation like a physical weight. At the same moment, Jon places one hand on his leg under the table, and Daisy rests her fingers on his wrist, and Martin focuses on the contact like an anchor, holding him in place. Finally he swallows his food, and opens his mouth – and – and –
And looks at Jon, pleadingly.
“I'm not Seeing it for you,” he says, and Martin rolls his eyes. He tries to remember the tiny bit of BSL he learnt after he left school, then realises that he only knows the alphabet, and that the rest of the group probably doesn't, and sighs.
He has to close his eyes, and manoeuvre Daisy and Jon so that the only contact he has is his own fingertips resting over Jon's on the table; but he manages to pull himself together enough to speak.
“I've always thought of what I do as drifting?”
His voice is quiet and cracking, but he makes it through the sentence and blows out a breath of relief, opening his eyes and clutching at Jon's hand. Jon is frowning at nothing, and all the women are making faces.
“The Drifter?” says Melanie, sounding very sceptical. “Isn't – wasn't that a soul band in the sixties?”
“They formed in 1953,” Jon corrects, “and are technically still active, they change members a lot.” Then his eyes go wide in annoyance, and he adds to no one in particular, “Really? That's what you think is worth knowing?!”
Martin huffs along with the laughter of the group, until Basira sits back from her empty plate, licking her fingers, then raises her hands, and says:
“How about just – The Wanderer?”
There is silence for a moment. Martin ponders it – The Wanderer – and raises his eyebrows, making a face that conveys, Actually...
“That's not bad,” says Daisy, with a nod.
“I mean, it still kind of sounds like an indie band,” adds Melanie, and raises her voice to speak over the dissent of the others – “But, to be fair, I think any name for the fear of loneliness is going to sound like an indie band, so –” She shrugs, and picks up another slice of pizza. “I like it.”
“Yeah, I don't think we're coming up with anything better,” says Daisy. “Martin?”
He looks at her – then at Basira – and thinks, The Wanderer... and smiles.
“Yeah,” he croaks. “I like it.”
Jon's hand tightens under his own, and when Martin looks over at him, there is an expression of such frightened fondness that it warms Martin's heart in both a very human, and a very monstrous way. The breath Jon takes after the moment is thin.
“Bloody hell,” groans Melanie, “just kiss him, Jon, we can all see that you want to.”
“What?” he snaps at the group, wide-eyed, prompting Daisy to snort at him.
“Don't think we can't tell what's happened between you two,” she says. “Just kiss him, would you? If it makes you more comfortable, I can kiss Basira at the same time.”
“Yeah,” adds Melanie, “where does that leave me?!”
“Probably much better adjusted than the rest of us,” Jon mutters, and Martin realises, Oh, that was a joke, and Jon doesn't need to take the initiative anymore, because Martin's already reeling him in by the hand and kissing him firmly on the mouth through his smile. Melanie complains about how gross they are, as Basira's rebuttal that she and Daisy are very well-adjusted, thank you, is cut off by Daisy's lips on hers.
“All right, that's enough,” Melanie grumbles after a moment, “we are in public, remember. Now, Martin's monster title may be dealt with – and, by the way, it's really messed up how casual we all are about this – but we need to figure out a better solution to this nightmare problem...”
@ the UK, call it a halal snack pack you cowards
Anyway, we made it, kids! Endings are a bourgeois lie and no problem linked to an eldritch horror is ever really solved.
MASSIVE thank you to everyone who's been kudos-ing and commenting on this as it goes!! I don't think I've ever had such quick, lovely, and in-depth responses to a fic in progress, and considering I felt like I've been rushing it out a bit, youse really kept me going through it. What a brilliant fandom you all are! <3
Personally, I think it's a pretty decent theory about Lonely and Extinction, but even if I were right, I've no doubt JSims would write the version where Martin is trapped in Forsaken forever and everything is awful, so. I'm happy to put some fluff out there to balance it.