Actions

Work Header

to be alone with you

Chapter Text

Barely twenty-four hours after Jon and Basira have dragged themselves back bloodied and weary to the Institute, Elias returns.

Prison doesn’t appear to have hit him that badly. He’s all but preening, judiciously distributing little smiles and nods to the staff flocking to him, enough to seem generous with his attention but not so often as to come across like he’s giving them to everyone indiscriminately; making each and every one feel special. Shakes hands with a few of the senior staff. Poshly returns Rosie’s impertinent high-five. Chuckles derisively at the handful of comments about how oh, we know you designated him, but that Mister Lukas, really, we’re so glad to have you back, Mister Bouchard, what a dreadful misunderstanding, can’t even trust the justice system these days. Jon feels vaguely ill.

Despite Jon’s best efforts, Elias catches his gaze across the hall — Jon reflexively adjusts his sunglasses but he is sure that, despite the dark lenses, Elias knows that their eyes met. Elias stares directly at him and his lips stretch into a lazy smile. Feline; not quite Cheshire but got-the-cream for sure, playing-with-a-mouse possibly, and that’s definitely nausea tightening the pit of Jon’s stomach.

Elias tilts his head, pointedly, like a greeting, and Jon feels like a hen huffing and puffing but he turns away and retreats to his own lair.

A little pettily, he leaves the Closed sign on the door (notices that during his and Basira’s absence, someone has added bugger off! in a corner, next to the run while you can! Tim scribbled there a year ago). It’s barely mid-morning, but everyone’s in the hall for the big welcome party anyway. As always, the Archives are even hotter than upstairs for some godforsaken outdated-heating-system reason, but they are at least empty and silent. The rooms are not completely dark, there is just enough luminosity from the corridor to see by. Jon leaves the lights off and picks his way in the half-darkness to the corner they’ve repurposed into a tiny lounge area, to put a kettle on.

Basira unsurprisingly pops up just a few minutes later, right as it clicks off. She gives him a nod of acknowledgement and carefully sits down on the old beaten-up sofa Sasha (?) discovered under boxes of stationery almost two years ago, leaning on the armrest to avoid applying pressure to her back. After a moment, she mumbles in annoyance at nothing in particular: “God, I can’t even read.” Jon grunts in superficial sympathy and pours her a mug too.

There are a few minutes of silence and stillness as they wait for the tea to cool.

Right as Jon takes his first tentative gulp, Basira says into the semi-darkness: “I haven’t thanked you, right?”

Jon doesn’t look up from his mug. “I really don’t think you owe me that.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

Jon feels his lips quirk up, bitterly. “No, I don’t think you have.”

After a pause, Basira concludes: “Right,” and then nothing more. The minutes stretch on and she doesn’t say anything, and Jon says nothing, and they drink their tea in silence, like this is a full and complete interaction: Basira bringing it up and not saying it; Basira pointedly not saying it, but bringing it up.

What she offers instead, out of nowhere, a good five minutes later, is: “Sorry for shooting you.”

“No, I,” and Jon literally, physically, bites the tip of his tongue. “Well, it all worked out in the end. No apology required.”

“What were you about to say?”

For all that she insists on her not being police anymore, she really has gotten questioning these days.

He sighs. “You don’t need to apologise, because I don’t resent you for it, because it was pretty much in line with what I wanted you to do?”

Silence settles again.

“Right,” Basira repeats, and it’s only as she lowers her own dark shades back over her eyes that Jon realises she had been looking at him. “Well, lucky for both of us that I’m not that good a shot, huh?”

“You nailed me right through where I should have had a rib, while I was moving and you were being blinded by a literal equivalent to the sun, and you hit that thing square in the mouth.”

“‘Twas a big mouth.”

Through me.”

“I’ll take it, I guess,” she concedes primly. “Now shut up and drink.”

“I’ve been trying,” Jon grumbles.

He brings his mug to his lips as the trap door lifts and there’s a blinding flash; it takes him by surprise enough that he yelps, and so does Basira — twice. There’s a fumbling, “Oh crap, sorry!” and Daisy kills her heavy duty torch light.

“Urgh, Daisy!”

“Sorry! Sorry, I forgot. Was looking for you guys.” A pause as she climbs out. “You okay?”

Jon stops rubbing at his eyelids to squint in Basira’s direction. She’s doing the same, having put down her own mug and sunglasses on the table beside the sofa. “Yeah, yeah. Just smashed my glasses into my face and spilt my tea.”

“Oops.”

“Yeah.”

The silence is more awkward now, as they sulkily nurse their wounds. After a pause, Daisy tentatively offers: “Want another mug? Shirt?”

“No, it’s fine. I’m just going to nap, I think.”

“Oh, okay,” and she completely naturally plops herself down next to Basira and helps her painstakingly shift around to lie, face down, with her head in her lap. Daisy’s hand hovers over Basira’s headscarf like she wants to run her fingers into her hair.

Jon quietly retreats to his office.

He hasn’t even finished his bloody mug when Melanie opens his door. There’s a pair of large sunglasses perched on her nose, for some unfathomable, ineffable reason. By way of greeting, she raises two fingers in the air and announces, “Two questions.”

“I’ve got one too,” Jon mumbles.

“Not sure I’ll allow it.” She wiggles her index finger. “Does my knife ban still apply to Elias?”

“Yes, Melanie,” Jon sighs. “I’m still not convinced that he was lying about it killing us all, and furthermore we agreed not to murder him.” Not to mention the entire part where she is still recovering from being infected by ghosts channelling her anger into violence.

“Speak for you guys. In that case,” she wiggles the second finger, “d’you think he’ll carry on with the Institute paying for my therapy? I expect I’ll need a lot more of it.”

Jon blinks a few times. For some reason it’s hard to think while his vision is impaired. Hopefully it’s not some strange Eye-related phenomenon. “I… have no idea. Ask Martin, I suppose?”

She snorts, rather rudely, though they’re long past the point where he’ll bother trying to scold her for it. Actually, he doesn’t remember a time their professional relationship was at that point. He has never worked with her without both of them knowing that there was nothing normal about this job. Hierarchy and propriety have always been abstract concepts in their interactions.

“Yeah,” she says. “Right. Sure, I’ll find Martin and ask him that.”

That, too, twists and tugs on something tight in Jon’s gut and makes his eyes sting. He lowers his eyelids to let them rest some more, and sighs. “I am starting to consider your point, though,” he admits distractedly.

“About the stabbing?”

“About the therapy.”

“Drat.”

“Melanie, please.”

He can see, cannot see, guesses, just knows that she shrugs at that.

“Do I get my question?” he asks into the dark.

“You can say it.”

“Why are you wearing sunglasses?”

She cackles, that awful, hyena-like sound, deriding and unkind and gleeful; it’s such a better sound to hear than Elias’s chuckling by miles. “Team Archive solidarity?”

“So just mocking our misery? Is that how you respect our brave sacrifice?”

“Taking what little amusement we get,” she bites back, with no acidity to her tone. He can hear the smile in her voice, too. “Speaking of, though. If you and Basira are up for it, Daisy suggested we all get some ice cream to drown our sorrow in and have a Friday night nerd-out with some horrible movies downstairs. You in?”

That gets him to open his eyes, blinking again. “Ice cream?”

“Well, I can’t have booze.”

He needs to take a moment, consider his emotion about the idea, but no amount of thinking about it seems to change anything. “Sounds dreadful. I would like that.”

She cackles again and Jon really wishes he could make himself hate it and ask her to stop doing that. The sound itself, it’s so disgraceful.

 


 

So on the evening of Elias’s return, Jon finds himself standing in the frozen foods aisle of a late-night convenience store, sunglasses on and still squinting in the fluorescent lights, trying to decide what flavours, from ‘Cookie Dough Chip’ to ‘Strawberry Cheesecake’, he is least loathe to put inside his body.

Between his lack of familiarity with shopping for ice cream, his discomfort with the blinding brightness, and the constant generalised feeling of hopelessness and fear that’s always looming over him in the background like white noise, it takes him a moment to realise something is specifically wrong, right now. His vision seems distorted: the metal of the freezer is bent, and the buckets and packets of ice cream strangely warped. No, it isn’t his vision: his outstretched hand is fine.

No, it isn’t.

His hand feels hot; too hot. Too hot for a hand that’s been rifling through a freezer for a few minutes, too hot for the English summer, too hot for a burn, too hot to not be on fire right now. His hand feels like it’s on fire again, a brazier, his hand is nothing but a flame now, and much more than this, hotter than fire can be, too hot to be real, too hot to possibly bear again and he’s going to scream, he’s never going to stop screaming, except it is not his hand.

The arm is pale, slim, and the third degree burn scar is different, much newer and stretching up bared skin to the elbow. Its twin is outstretched next to it, identical. Jon slowly pulls his hand out of the freezer and the arms stay there, and he steps out of the person he isn’t, and looks.

She is leaning over the freezer, both arms elbows-deep in the frozen packets that are warping around her flesh, melting into multicoloured sludge. She is whimpering quietly, and crying, and the tears that roll down her cheeks evaporate in the cold air above the freezer.

She tried to catch something, or to hold it, something that could not be touched without scorching.

“Jon?”

He blinks.

There is no one else here, just Daisy throwing him a look over her sunglasses from the alcohol aisle. The metal of the freezer is a little deformed, but the food has been replaced, the woman has been gone for hours. Only hours — she was here just a few hours ago; she can’t be far. Perhaps the store clerk took her to a hospital, or sued her for the ruined food, or something, they may have her name.

“Jon, what’s up? Bamboozled by Häagen-Dazs?”

He rubs his tired eyes. “Do you think Basira likes ‘Peanut Butter Crunch’?”

“‘Dulce de Leche’,” Daisy states categorically.

Jon ends up grabbing a tub of each flavour at random, and follows her to the till.

He glances over his shoulder, just to check, as if there were anything else to expect, but the afterimage of the woman is still just standing, alone, in cold that can barely do anything to help the pain of wounds that will never stop burning. He is fairly sure he could follow her steps, find out what happened to her, her whole story.

Without looking away from their purchases, Daisy gives him a light shove in the shoulder and says, gruffly, “Come on, let’s get back before the ice cream melts.”

Jon closes his eyes, rubs at his eyelids again, and the woman’s gone.

 


 

They go home, and Melanie complains about the disrespect of Daisy bringing alcohol she cannot drink and Daisy doesn't care and Basira grabs the ‘Dulce de Leche’, and the ragtag remains of the archival staff minus one pile up on stacks of blankets and oddly fluffy pillows in the tunnels that officially shouldn’t exist underneath the Magnus Institute, to watch on Jon’s battered laptop —

“No one said anything about trashy horror.”

“I said ‘horrible’.”

“I assumed romcoms!”

“That would be horrifying,” Daisy notes, nonplussed.

“Stomach-turning,” Melanie agrees. “I’ve got other stuff too, though. You have to see the Ghostbusters reboot, Jon.”

Jon sighs and motions to Daisy for the alcohol; the light from the dimmed screen glints off her grin.

One bottle,” Basira says.

They’re starting with Sharknado, so Jon is hoping they’ll manage to cajole her into indulgence.

 


 

Halfway through one of the instalments of the Twilight series (Jon wouldn’t be able to tell which one), Melanie elbows him in the flank, right above where the rib is missing. “See, we even got you vampires! This is fun, right?”

“I’m almost regretting not letting that Dark thing claw my eyes out,” Jon deadpans flatly.

Daisy elbows him on the other side. “Could arrange that.”

“Thank you, I think I’m good.”

“It’s really a botched job,” Basira pipes up from where her head is lying in Daisy’s lap. “Scars are definitely not your look. This is my final say.”

“Thank you, Basira.”

“Welcome.”

“Scars are hot in general,” Daisy proclaims calmly, giving Basira a spoonful of ice cream, “but I gotta agree: not flattering on you. I think. Not that I’m an expert.”

“Thank you, Daisy.”

“Okay, everyone shut up about Jon’s lack of hotness for a bit —” Melanie cuts in, (“Thank you, Melanie.”) “— Alice is coming in.”

“Is that the real reason why we’re watching Twilight?” Basira yawns.

“K. Stew is fine too these days,” Daisy argues. “Bit young in this one though.”

“Yeah.”

“Who?” Jon mutters on principle.

“Jon are you serious — Bella.”

“I’m sorry to confess, Melanie, I have not been following.”

“I can’t actually blame you.” Daisy shrugs and steals the new bottle from him. “The protagonist. Her,” and she points with her index finger while she takes a swig.

He squints. “She’s rather scowly?”

“Yes.” Daisy sits back in her nest of pillows with a little satisfied smile.

Jon powers through for a few minutes, but he can feel his own frown deepening. “I don’t get it,” he has to admit a few scenes later. “They both look rather, uh, dead?”

“Yeaaah, that part’s no good either,” Daisy readily concedes.

“No part of it is good. But at least Taylor Lautner made up for it when I was a wee little thing,” Melanie chimes in decisively.

“That’s your opinion and I will not discuss it.”

They cling bottles across Jon’s chest. Basira shuffles and cranes her neck just enough to squint at it. “That’s more than one bottle. Melanie, you can’t have booze.”

“I know, it’s tomato juice, let me suffer in peace.”

“I’m sure Daisy has finished one bottle already.”

“Shhh. Sleep. Rest. I’ll wake you up for Boondock Saints.

“I cannot rest while Twilight crimes are being committed right in my presence.”

Daisy shoves another spoon of ice cream into her mouth. Basira swallows it painstakingly, then pipes up: “Wait, Melanie, you weren’t even that youn—”

“Oooh look it’s Carlisle. New appreciation for daddy vampire suddenly.”

“Yeah, how many times have you seen these anyw—”

“I can’t hear you over vampire dad!”

“The vampire dad looks all right, I suppose,” Jon ventures, and pretends to take offence as another loud and laughing argument explodes around him, the conclusion of which is, despite his protests, that they’ll watch a much gorier and trashier werewolf film next.

 


 

Basira must have dozed off at some point in the middle of Halloween (it’s June, for God’s sake!). At the end of Alien, Melanie collects a few pillows and blankets and wades through the corpses of empty bottles and ice cream tubs to go set up for sleep a few yards away; her back firmly to the wall, and not with them, but in-the-same-area-as-them. Small, or huge steps, depending on how you measure. She mumbles something about her sleep medication tasting horrible with tomato juice.

“Time for Jennifer’s Body,” Daisy declares with apparent deep satisfaction.

“Aren’t you tired?” Jon asks her, quietly (as though Basira hasn’t just slept through extended scenes of loud gore and screaming).

“Aren’t you?” Daisy immediately shoots back, without looking at him.

“Always. Not really. I wasn’t planning on sleeping.”

“Well, then I’m staying up too.”

“It’s fine, I’m used to it.”

“Mmm, the thing is,” and here she shifts, casually, in such a way that screams the carefully controlled nonchalance of it, resettles as though making herself more comfortable but Jon notices that this new position has freed her right arm, “I’m not going to leave you the only person awake in this room.”

Jon winces, glances aside at Melanie. “Usually I just go. She didn’t ask me to this time, though? I think that’s a good sign?”

“That, too.”

Jon looks at Daisy, properly. She is still staring at the screen, faded colours playing on her face, and her eyebrows are just a little furrowed, the set of her jaw just a little tight.

Cautiously, he tells her: “I don’t know what this is about.”

Again with that calculated casual attitude and tone, she glances at him and says: “I hear you’ve been going around eating people.”

The long beat of blank silence that happens here is probably not doing wonders to Jon’s credit, but in his defence, the wording would have thrown off most people, especially in the context of a trashy horror movies night.

Feeding from,” he corrects, a little offended. “Just… taking statements, I haven’t killed anyone.”

Daisy raises one eyebrow. Her left hand is cradling Basira’s head gently, absentmindedly scratching through her headscarf, but her right one is resting on the floor in a loose fist.

“Look,” he sighs, “it’s not what it sounds like.”

“Be very careful how you word this,” Daisy says airily.

Jon rolls his eyes. “I know, all right? It’s bad. I hurt people. I know, I didn’t do it without thinking about it.”

“So far, not improving your situation.”

Yes,” Jon hurries, “I know, I did it because I needed the information —”

“Not really, from what I hear?”

“— … well, I could have.”

“Mhmm.”

“And mostly, in order to be at full power on the Solstice, so I could stop what I thought to be the end of the world.”

“Mhmmm. So, the end justifies the means? Simple maths, makes it okay?” Her face is very still.

Jon sighs again. “No, it doesn’t. I don’t like it either, Daisy. But yes, I decided on the way that this, while… not ideal, was worth the price.”

“You’re not the one paying.”

He chortles, humourless. “No.”

There’s a beat, as he considers whether to opt for safety or sincerity.

“I needed to make sure Basira would get out alive, too,” he finally admits.

“Oh fuck off.”

“I was factoring in Basira as well. Against the peace of mind of people I don’t know for a few weeks.”

Daisy is silent for a little while again, still staring at the screen as a demonically possessed high schooler disembowels her date. Her fingers continue to rub back and forth against Basira’s head in perfect, hypnotic regularity.

“Remember,” she finally says, calmly, “how I wanted to kill you for doing that to me?”

Jon shifts a little, folding his legs up and gathering them in his arms, hugging them to his chest. “Yes.”

It’s a few minutes of teenage angst, sex and gore again before the penny drops and Daisy goes, “Hey.”

“It would have been…” Jon drags his hand through his hair, over his face, mumbles: “it would be a solution to a lot of current problems? One less monster, no more nightmares for anyone, and no more grand ritual of the Beholding for at least a while?”

“Yeah, and then what, you’d be leaving us to deal with the rest?”

“… I suppose.”

“Fucking thanks, mate.” She sighs and slumps into her pile of pillows, like a balloon deflating. Her right hand comes up rub at her own face. In her lap, Basira shifts a little, possibly in reaction to the screams coming from the laptop, though she doesn’t appear to wake. “And then they weren’t even trying to destroy the world. And you came back alive.”

“And I came back alive,” Jon acquiesces, tiredly. “Homicidal cultists, anti-sun, Dark beast, and I still came back alive. Even Basira — is more stubborn than I expected. Or less.”

“Mmm.”

Jon props his chin on his knees and waits in silence for her verdict, distractedly taking in the pictures of egregious violence cheerfully going on on the screen. After a few minutes, Daisy’s hand reaches out for him and gives him a hard noogie and appears to be done with this, at least for now, so Jon relaxes. The movie isn’t his cup of tea, but sort of enjoyable, and he can see why Daisy likes it.

At the end, Daisy stretches, lazily, states, “Well, I do want to sleep a little, so for now I’ll settle for you getting out of here. Actually, you locked the Archives up there, right?”

“Yes.”

“Gimme your key.”

“Daisy, I’m not going to go —”

“Give me your key, Jon.”

He gives her his key. She pats his hand like petting an obedient puppy before pocketing it.

“Wouldn’t want you to go terrorise some poor little student just doing their normal spooky research.”

He snorts. “Is there such a thing as regular supernatural research?” After a moment, he can’t help but add: “Elias has a spare.”

“I’ll get to you if you scream,” she promises casually. It’s genuinely reassuring, which in itself probably ought to be worrying. “Right. I’ll talk this out with Basira tomorrow and we’ll get you started. Think I’ll put a tracker system on your phone,” she adds, while rearranging pillows. “Probably lock you in your office when I need to sleep.”

Jon isn’t about to question what is a rather light sentence, but he’s still a little baffled. “May I ask what I’m starting?”

“Cutting you off. It’s been, what, a couple weeks since that guy on the boat?”

“Floyd Matharu. A little over.”

“Mmm.”

“It’s really not a big deal, Daisy. I can handle it on my own, thank you.”

“Mmm, nope.” She doesn’t even look up at him, continuing to set herself up for sleep (blanket up to her waist but no weight on her chest, lots of pillows but propped up rather than buried in them), and makes a shooing gesture. “No, it really is, believe me. Off with you for now.”

So off he goes.

 


 

There’s a yellow door further down in the tunnels, so Jon turns his back to that path and goes back up the ladder to the Archives instead.

It must be late into the morning already, but the large windowless rooms are just as dark as they left them, quiet and deserted. Jon navigates his way through the familiar shelves, steps over the boxes and piles of clothes (they’re due for a laundry trip sometime soon), towards the safe room. He still isn’t interested in sleeping, especially not after this conversation, but there isn’t much else to do; a few hours ago, he could perhaps have managed to decipher a statement with the right level of low lighting, but his eyes are much too tired now and his brain completely dumbed-out by the hours and hours of mindless violence and/or absurd teenage angst. So he drags out the old cot again, the one that was already there before any of them and which the girls didn’t bother bringing down into the tunnels because it squeaks so badly, and lies down on it, staring at the ceiling.

It feels… different. And not just in the sense that he never had a trashy movies night with Sasha, Tim and Martin.

(He’s too tired for those thoughts right now.)

More accurately, it feels almost like it used to, back when he would only sleep here because he had overfocused on work and stayed too late to feel like catching the tube home and the Institute felt safe, too, although for different reasons; out of ignorance, rather than knowledge of what’s outside. It feels right. The Archives are empty besides him, but the Institute isn’t. It has its beating heart again. Peter Lukas is gone, and Elias is back — his presence permeating the walls, pumping blood back into the corridor veins, the ripples of his return slowly spreading and waking the Institute from its own long sleep.

The Magnus Institute isn’t a cold and empty grave; it is a thrumming, living thing, with so many little hands and fingers, so many little brains and eyes, going about their day. On a Saturday morning there’s only a handful librarians and outside research students and that’s still so many, so much curiosity, except for Rosie bored at her desk playing Minesweeper, and Jon can feel it, now, something he hadn’t realised he used to be able to feel, and had lost, in the months since he woke up. A restless energy, the thrill of ken and discovery, and the desire to dig deeper, unearth all the gory details, find out the bloody secrets that were desperately concealed and soak up the dangerous knowledge that should have stayed forgotten.

It’s right. Jon’s brain hates it, and something primal in him can still feel that it’s terrifying, but his blood can feel that it is right.

He covers his eyes with his forearm; it doesn’t truly help, but the shield quality of the gesture is comforting.

It’s been a while since he slept in here. He lost the habit somewhat when Martin moved in for a few months — Christ, two years ago, already, only two years ago.

Did Martin feel this, too, as he lay here trying to convince himself that he couldn’t hear crawling in the walls or knocking on the door? Has he ever been aware of the Institute breathing around him? He’s been working here for so much longer; even at the time of the Prentiss siege, he had more years under his belt than Jon does now. Jon rakes his brain, cannot remember if Martin ever mentioned feeling watched, only caught and trapped.

He exhales loudly as he feels the exact moment something in the Institute — something specific — looks back, a particular pair of eyes turn to him.

“Go away,” he whispers.

But he knows he’s going to fall asleep, and he knows he’s going to dream.

 


 

He has the dark dream again.

 

Chapter Text

Life at the Archives resumes, as always. It’s strange how nothing ever seems to be able to truly change it, be it invasions, deaths, coma, near-apocalypses, or managerial replacement; in the wake of it, Jon still always ends up sitting in his office, squinting at shaky handwriting. It’s just in much lower luminosity right now, and sometimes the door is locked.

Currently, it is jammed open with a stack of statements so as to use the indirect light from the main room, and the object of Jon’s scrutiny is a rather miraculous box he found the day before (or thereabouts). It contains a couple hundred case files classified in a near-logical order, almost all of them from the nineteenth century. Though a majority are of course dummies or mundane, it’s still quite the treasure trove; there are even a few more letters addressed to Jonah Magnus. He and Basira have been raking through it for a few hours, respectively sitting and lying on the floor of his dimly-lit office. Basira is having a harder time than he is, and does a lot of bored napping on her spread of pillows from the sofa, but she manages.

Whatever weaning programme she and Daisy have cooked up for Jon hasn’t much impacted his life so far. Daisy indeed took his phone for a bit and set up a monitoring system on it for when he goes outside, but he hasn’t yet. It’s a little difficult keeping track of time without regularly witnessing sunlight (and even with that help, he’s never been overly concerned with matching his activities or sleep schedule to the clock anyway), but he’s fairly sure it’s been at least three days since the movies night, and he has successfully avoided seeing hair nor hide of Elias since then. (Which amounts to not having gone upstairs and Elias not having come down to the Archives to sniff him out.) Thus, so far, his life is about as normal and weird as usual, and he is doing about as fine as ever. He isn’t hungry.

… Not metaphorically, at any rate. It occurs to him that he may have been forgetting the baser human need when his stomach emits a particularly horrendous growl. It feels twisted, starting to ache dully, as tough it is resorting to eating itself in the absence of any other sustenance.

He sighs, stretches out his aching joints, reaches for his sunglasses, and announces: “I’m going out for lunch.”

Without missing a beat or looking up from the paper she is engrossed in, Basira deadpans: “Pal, it’s like six in the evening.”

“Dinner.”

“Jon, have you not had lunch.”

“I’m thinking of the Indian place, do you want anything?”

She raises her head and squints at him, in a crystal clear I see what you’re doing signal, but lets it go. “Veggie paneer curry. Take Daisy.”

“I think I can handle a twenty minutes errand for takeaway, Basira.”

“Daisy!” she yells. “He’s being difficult!”

He rolls his eyes as Daisy obediently trots over to their dark lair, her backlit silhouette detached in the doorframe. “What’s he done this time?”

“Do you want some tikka masala?” Jon asks her.

“Yeah. I’ll go with you.”

“For the love of — I can go alone!”

She peers at him making exactly the same face as Basira. It’s downright uncanny, as well as insulting.

“Do you want to check my eyes?” Jon groans, exasperated. “See if they’re bloodshot? Do you want a —”

“This is serious, Jon,” Daisy snaps.

“I know, and I’m fine.”

“Lamb jalfreezi for me, actually.”

“Thank you.”

“Text me every five minutes.”

“For God’s sake.”

 


 

Daisy, 6:14pm
Jon
Jon its been six min
Jon i swear im coming

Sent 6:15pm
I’m not even at the restaurant yet.

Daisy, 6:15pm
Jon do u think i care >:/

Sent 6:20pm
In the queue.

Daisy, 6:20pm
attaboy

Sent 6:25pm
Still in the queue.

 

 

 

Basira Hussain, 6:27pm
Melanie wants to add a mango lassi in the end

Sent 6:29pm
Okay.

Basira Hussain, 6:31pm
And extra kofta

Sent 6:32pm
I literally just ordered. This is why I asked your orders.

 

 

 

Daisy, 6:35pm
Jon

Sent 6:36pm
Not been 5 minutes yet!!

Daisy, 6:36pm
are u assuming i read basira’s texts

Sent 6:37pm
Yes? Assuming she showed you?

Daisy, 6:37pm
rude
hurt

 

 

 

Melanie 👻, 6:38pm
Extra malai kofta

Sent 6:40pm
Yes, I asked. And your lassi.

Melanie 👻, 6:41pm
you’re all right, jon

 

 

 

Daisy, 6:42pm
Jon

Daisy, 6:45pm
Jon

Daisy, 6:46pm
Jon I swear

Sent 6:47pm
Yes,, you try carryng 2 bags adn texgnt

Daisy, 6:47pm
hurry up Archers in 13 min
also dude do you not use autocorrect

 


 

Daisy has set up his laptop in the middle of the old desk they use as dinner table, and Melanie complains almost as much as Jon but they are allowed to listen to today’s episode as they eat. The meal is good as always (that shop hasn’t been the favourite takeaway through three different teams of assistants for nothing), and uneventful aside from fictional drama, until Jon notices something. Next to him, Melanie jumps, almost spills her lassi, glares at him in suspicion; but it takes her grabbing his sleeve and asking, “Jon, what’s going on?”, for him to realise that he has stood up, and that Basira has been asking him the same question, calmly but increasingly louder.

“Ah,” he stammers. “It’s — Martin.”

“Aah,” Melanie goes, and he’s not sure what that’s for but he doesn’t like her tone. “And?”

It’s not that it’s hard to put his knowledge into words, it’s just — difficult to focus enough to do that, when his attention is reaching for what’s happening in another room. “He’s in Elias’s office,” Jon manages to struggle out. “And Elias is there too.”

“Oh.”

“At this time?” Basira notes, frowning.

“I’m, uh, a little. Worried?”

“Yeah, being alone with Elias is in his office is never fun,” Melanie agrees, very neutrally.

From across the table, Daisys pipes up, “Jon,” and her tone is yet one level of careful control above that. The kind of tone used to instruct someone about a hornet on the back of their head. Jon turns to glance at her, and she isn’t looking at him. She is sitting very still, hands flat on the surface of the desk, but her nostrils are flaring slightly. “There’s something else around, too.”

Jon stretches out again, peering more closely, but he can’t get anything more than the awareness of Martin, sitting near the wall, and of Elias, sitting at his desk, and of an empty chair across from him. A familiar headache starts building, spreading from each of his temples, and when he gives up and returns his focus to Daisy’s face, his tear ducts are prickling and his vision swimming, as though he’s been crossing his eyes. He remembers to blink. “I don’t…?”

“Yeah, dunno what it is.” Daisy is still perfectly composed, neither panicking nor making this a big deal, but her frown is deeper than he’s seen in a while. “I can hear — well, I can’t really hear it? But. Can hear my blood. There’s something for sure.”

She looks up to meet his gaze, meaningfully, and Jon is pretty sure they both have the same idea what it might be and neither of them likes it.

“I need to go,” Jon states.

Daisy nods. “So I’m coming with.”

He stumbles at that. Next to Daisy, Basira frowns behind her dark glasses and lays her palm on Daisy’s flattened right hand, not quite holding it, just touching it. “You sure?” she asks.

Daisy shifts her hand to give her a short squeeze. “Yeah. Ought to talk with Elias too at some point anyway.” She shrugs and rises from her chair, unfolding and stretching nonchalantly, cracking her neck, a mountain lion rising from its nap for the hunt.

Melanie stands up and Jon starts saying, “I don’t think that’s a good —”, at the same time Basira deadpans: “No.”

Melanie closes her mouth into a straight line, purses her lips, then opens it again. “I think I have mentioned my feelings on you two making decisions for me.”

“Yes,” Jon admits. “Sorry. I know you don’t like it.”

Basira just doesn’t budge, or even really look at her. Instead, Daisy promises, consoling: “When we’re back, I’ll tell you if I think we should kill him after all.”

“Daisy, no.”

 


 

Jon wasn’t quite scared and wasn’t going to be, but Daisy’s presence is still welcome reassurance and support, rather than just trailing him. Which she isn’t doing, anyway; she strides confidently by his side through the corridors and up the stairs, sunglasses on, uncaring of the stares and whispers that follow Jon. When they reach Elias’s door, she just pushes it open before Jon can even start agonising about whether to knock.

“Here they are,” Elias says with an amiable smile.

The office hasn’t, technically, changed since Jon’s last intrusion. He can’t pinpoint any specific, physical difference. It simply feels more… intense. More clear-cut; the colours of the lush carpet more vivid, the ticks of the clock sharper. The room more real, existing more, now that Elias is back in it.

Elias is sitting at his desk, looking perfectly put-together and professional in his dark blue suit, as usual; as if he never left. There is a small tape recorder lying on the desk in front of his joined hands, and Jon briefly entertains the fantasy of making him eat it. Perhaps more than briefly.

“Hi,” Daisy says casually. Jon admires her self-control.

Jon, himself, says nothing.

Martin says nothing.

Martin is sitting in an elegant and comfortable-looking velvet-upholstered wingback chair, off to the side near the left wall of the room. He is not quite slouching, but he is looking down at his clasped hands, between his knees; his thighs are spread and his ankles crossed. He is a little better dressed than he used to be while he worked under Jon — the beige jumper still his habitual fashion, but newer and in a better state, and his trousers freshly ironed — but he’s still wearing his old faded red trainers, without socks, shoelaces messily and unevenly knotted and one end fraying, and they look very incongruous on Elias’s gleaming antique floorboards. He both belongs and stands out here: a long-time Institute employee who never actually had the qualifications for it, a servant of the Eye collaborating with another entity, half of him looking lifted straight from Jon’s photographic memory and the other half having clearly changed in the time Jon slept and the time Jon just — missed him.

Martin sits in his chair and does not look up and says nothing, there and not there, not connecting with anyone in the room even through eye contact.

Jon feels. Some kind of way about this. Something he cannot name, somewhere in his chest that he cannot place precisely, because the only way to do so would be to describe an absence. An armchair covered in undisturbed dust, the other half of the bed still made in the morning, fields of untrodden snow. A vague impression, the ghost of a feeling, searching for something and forgetting what, trying to remember what you were missing. Looking out through a fogged-up window.

On the other side of Elias’s desk, between him and them, there is a chair, and on the chair there isn’t something. It shifts and twists and turns to face Jon and Daisy as they make their entrance; its edges blur like a cloud of steam or foam off the crest of a wave, and it fizzles occasionally, like an unstable hologram or static on a television screen, transient and not quite tangible, always just about to disappear suddenly.

“I’ve got to confess,” Peter Lukas says, “I still don’t see it. Especially with the silly sunglasses.”

Without moving, neither making a show of it nor being discreet about it, just enough for Jon to catch it without looking at him, Martin rolls his eyes, and Jon’s worry abates, a little.

The thing sitting in the chair looks like an unremarkable middle-aged white man. Broad shoulders, thick limbs in a grey suit, salt-and-pepper hair and neatly trimmed beard, pale weathered skin, pale foggy eyes. The kind of everyday face that looks vaguely familiar and yet cannot be placed. All in all, the unstable presence aside, it falls squarely in the most human-looking subsection of the monsters Jon has encountered. That’s not particular indication of anything, though; Elias has never given any visible sign of being anything more than a thoroughly harmless and useless bureaucrat.

Peter Lukas stands, booms cheerily: “Hello, Jon!”, and extends a hand out.

Jon squints at him in warning, but is regrettably too British to refuse. He closes the door behind him and crosses the couple yards separating them to go and shake it. It’s cold and hard like a gravestone.

Lukas smiles, lips pulling back to reveal perfectly straight and white, entirely human teeth.

“And… Daisy, correct?”

“Hi,” she says again, pushing her sunglasses up to sit on her forehead, which just makes her look even more disrespectful than when wearing them. Jon wouldn’t want anyone else in here with him. She shakes Lukas’s hand as well, and the movement and flexing of her muscles look like she squeezes hard, but he just smiles more.

“Splendid to finally meet you two.”

“Yeah, ‘s not like we’ve been banging on this door for the last few months.”

“I got the impression that the door was not much of an obstacle for the both of you,” Elias observes mildly. “Hello, Detective Tonner.”

Most of the time, when seeing them separately, Jon doesn’t understand how and why Daisy and Basira get along in the first place; but occasionally, he’s reminded of exactly how long they’ve spent together. Daisy says, “Not a detective anymore, actually,” in the exact same rhythm and inflection as Basira does (minus the tired irritation). “Contract apparently came through just fine, figured I’d check but assumed you’d know about it?”

“Yes, there is quite the employee movement paperwork for me to deal with now that I have returned.” No one reacts but Elias’s smile is that lazy, sleazy thin line Jon knows well and has no affection for.

Mm, about that. When is Mr. Lukas leaving us?” he asks.

Peter Lukas’s face lights up as if to a lovely compliment. “I’m already gone, technically! In fact, I am barely here.”

Jon blinks a few times in confusion. Behind him, Daisy coughs into her fist, badly disguising an ugly snort of laughter, but from Elias and Martin there is a resounding absence of reaction; a pointed reaction in itself. Elias resumes smoothly, as though Lukas hadn’t said anything: “Leaving us, of course, with the matter of Martin to discuss. Which I do not believe concerns you, Jon, so if you’re quite done with this interruption?”

His smile is perfectly pleasant and he knew Jon was coming, didn’t even try to pretend otherwise, and Jon owes him neither contrition nor politeness at the best of times, certainly not right now. It is for Jon’s own benefit that he controls the anger that runs cold in his veins and thrums in his voice, forces himself lucid, deliberately forms each word and only those words: “What about Martin?”

He doesn’t put any force in it, besides the entirely natural icy fury. At any rate, he didn’t plan to; there is no need for it when Elias is clearly enjoying this little farce and intending to tell him (at some point, eventually, after he has drawn it out as long as he conceivably can), and besides, Jon’s power seems to have little to no effect on him. Yet Elias pauses, closes his eyes, for the briefest fraction of a second. There’s a faint glassy sheen to them when his eyelids lift again.

And he just says, in that unflappable tone again: “Exactly.”

If he has to survive, then one day, Jon will be able to compel him, rip and pull secrets and truths from Elias’s struggling throat until his lips split and his tongue bleeds, and he will enjoy it.

For now, he sits in the chair that Lukas has vacated, leans against the backrest and crosses his arms, raises his chin, defiant and firm. Daisy steps behind him, mimicking his stance in a clear signal, but he doesn’t look at her; this is expected, unremarkable, Jon and his team obviously standing united against Elias.

“You know, it’s funny,” he shoots, clipped, “in my opinion, the fate of my assistant concerns me rather directly.”

“Oh!” Peter Lukas exclaims, like something just occurred to him and he can’t wait to share. Very deliberately, he sits on the edge of Elias’s desk, hikes a leg up; his knee pushes a paperweight a few inches to the side and out of symmetry with the rest of the meticulously aligned stationery. He has been grinning widely for a while now, and looks to be having an absolutely delightful time. “That is funny! Because, see, Jon — can I call you Jon? — I am afraid that Martin is not really your assistant anymore.”

Jon sucks in a breath.

“Wait,” Daisy interjects, dry police tone, “how does that work? I thought we can’t quit.”

“Oh, he’s never quit,” Lukas explains readily. “As you know, I was, if temporarily, the head of this Institute, and I picked him out. You ought to congratulate him on his promotion, really! Point being, he has been… transferred out, I believe.”

But it’s not true.

Martin hasn’t suddenly started showing up in Jon’s dreams, for one, not even since Elias came back and Lukas left. For another, Jon cannot perceive Lukas’s presence; can see him, probably solely because Lukas is actively letting him, but cannot actually apprehend and fully believe that Lukas is in this room a few inches from him even as Jon looks directly into his pale eyes — but he can still feel Martin. Martin is out of reach, behind oceans of distance and walls of silence, but Jon can still feel him, as one of the limbs of the Institute still, an extension of his own consciousness. As he stares at Peter Lukas’s placid smile and holds his cold foggy gaze, he stretches out his attention, and in the corner of his vision, Martin flinches.

“I think he still belongs to us,” Jon says.

He discards Lukas to look at Elias, in time to catch sight of the corners of his lips curving up smugly. Jon glares at him, knowing Elias will be aware of it despite his dark lenses.

“Meaning you can’t have him,” he adds, perhaps a little petulantly.

“Bit of a conundrum we have here then,” Lukas notes, still smiling. It’s a real smile, the whole thing, the corners of his eyes crinkling with it, his voice warm and cordial; it’s only his eyes that don’t follow through with it. “I really do need Martin’s help with this little project, and I promise you, Jon, you want to see it to fruition too.”

Jon glowers at him. “And what would that project be?”

The world is sucked out from around him.

Peter Lukas is looming over him, right in front of him, and all Jon can see, there is only him, the only other person in the office, in the world, and when he goes there will be no one else and Jon will be entirely alone —

his index finger presses on Jon’s lips, soft, ice cold and stone hard, as unsubstantial as smoke, and that finger is all there is in the world, isn’t even there. Jon gasps; immediately gags, lurches forwards coughing, great hacking puffs of white smog. He doesn’t collide into Peter Lukas, because Peter Lukas is not there.

“Tut-tut-tut, Archivist,” he whispers, benign. “I have a proposition for you. You don’t try to compel me, and I don’t leave you here where not even your God will ever be able to see you again.”

Jon retches out another cloud of fog. Cold is filling his lungs, creeping and spreading through his veins in wisps. Misery is damp in his mouth and his tongue tastes of thick dust.

Lukas gives a casual shove on his back, as if to help him breathe, but much too hard; it feels like getting hit with an iceberg and only jostles Jon a little further down over his own knees. “Yes?” His voice is still as pleasant and pleased as ever, because he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care if Jon were to die here alone and unseen.

Weakly, Jon raises a thumb up.

“Perfect! Pleasure to deal with you, Jon.”

And just like that Jon is right back in the office he has never left, with Daisy shaking his shoulders, Daisy’s strong and rough warm hands, Daisy’s grave scowl and the harsh way she shouts, “Jon!”, while Jon catches the tail end of Martin sighing explosively, “Peter, please.

“Very sorry,” Peter declares, not looking even remotely contrite. “But I am glad we’ve come to an understanding.” He’s still sitting on the desk; has not moved from it at any point.

Elias shoots him an only mildly disgruntled glance. “How generous of you,” he utters. “Are you done being ridiculous, Jon?”

The question makes its way with some difficulty through the thick haze still clouding Jon’s thoughts, and it is even harder to formulate an answer. Jon settles for looking daggers at Elias again before readjusting his sunglasses, putting them back up between the two of them.

“Are you all right?” Daisy asks, quietly. Her tone suggests that this is not the first time she is inquiring. With her help, Jon has managed to sit back up, but she hasn’t stepped away from his personal space, hasn’t taken her hands off his shoulders; her right thumb is nested in the spot where his jaw hinges on his neck and he can feel his own pulse beating wildly against it, and for a fleeting second he thinks, anchor, then the thought spirals out with the rest of his dizziness before he can dissect it.

“‘M okay,” he mumbles. He leans his head against her arm a second, before squaring his shoulders and shaking himself. “Yes.”

She watches his face for a little longer, searching for something, still frowning slightly. “D’you want me to…?”, and an eloquent lightning-quick side-glance towards the two monsters at the desk.

“No. No, it’s fine. Understanding.”

“Right.” And only then does she take her hands off and one, single, step away. She stays right at his side, lays a hand on the backrest, her arm curving behind him. There.

“A-anyway,” Jon sighs. Clears his throat, raspily.

“Our little project!” Peter Lukas beams. “Yes.”

Jon rubs his eyes under his sunglasses. He is tired, so tired, and this man — thing — whatever he is, is exhausting in a different way than he expected. “I am guessing that it involves a little more than just paperwork.”

“Tough competition,” Elias murmurs. Jon awards him with another dark glare, and Elias raises an eyebrow and continues, a little louder: “Unfortunately, yes; there is an issue that needs dealing with, and Martin has committed to it.”

Jon stares at him some more. He gives it a few seconds, coughs once more in case the dumbstruck feeling is only an aftereffect of whatever Lukas did to him, but it doesn’t seem to be. “And you’re okay with that?” he clarifies, incredulous.

“I believe that Martin is capable of handling it, yes,” Elias susurrates in response, levelly, all silky smile. “Don’t you?”

Jon feels his cheeks burn; part shame, part anger, but he’s not sure in which proportions. Behind him, he hears Daisy cough again, awkward. “That is not the point — especially when I don’t even know what that whole ‘project’ entails.”

“Luckily, you don’t need to,” Lukas chimes in again, cheerfully. He leans over and gives a compassionate, overly-familiar pat to Jon’s shoulder with the back of his hand; it’s cold even through Jon’s shirt, and just a little too rough. Jon is reminded of the way his grandmother’s equally elderly bingo club friends would smooth his hair and pinch his cheeks with this exact lumbering pressure, this exact uncomfortable attempt and failure at friendliness, devoid of true empathy and ultimately only unpleasant. “I just need to take Martin along, and we’ll take care of this on our lonesome! Although, if I’m perfectly honest, mostly he will.”

“But you can’t,” Jon repeats, drained.

“Like I said, and Elias agreed, —”

“He can’t.” It’s water on his tongue, spilling from a spring, naturally flowing free and unobstructed, unquestioning. Pure certainty, pure knowledge, pure truth. “He’s still ours. He’s still tied to the Institute.” He stares into Elias’s impassive face, would bore holes into it with his gaze if he could. “If he stays away too long, he’s going to get ill.”

Daisy’s hand slides from the backrest to his shoulder. Jon doesn’t move.

Face entirely neutral, Elias only whispers: “Is he?”

Peter Lukas’s smile still doesn’t falter or twitch at all as his head swivels to, for the first time since Jon walked in, look at Elias, dead in the eye, like a bird of prey focusing on a target. “How amusing! I’ve never heard of that. Isn’t it interesting, Elias?”

“He’ll need to come here,” Jon carries on, confident and bold, “at least every so often. Do some work for us. You cannot keep him.”

Elias’s expression remains unchanged, but his tone as he says, “Jon,” is a warning.

Jon deliberately closes his mouth and replies with a single tilt of his head, and leans back in his seat, the back of his skull cushioned on Daisy’s arm. He has said what he needed; he can leave the negotiating to the one with more leverage.

Because Peter Lukas may want to take Martin, but he evidently needs him alive, and at least healthy enough to do whatever work it is they’re busying themselves with; whereas Elias has made it quite clear that as far as he is concerned, Jon’s assistants aren’t particularly more valuable alive than they are dead in horrific and spectacular circumstances.

“Yes,” Elias admits, with manifest reluctance. “I suppose we may as well arrange that part of Martin’s new contract now. Weekly visits should suffice to keep him in shape.”

Lukas isn’t blinking. The clock goes on happily ticking, deafening in the silence.

“I assume he will still need some research,” Elias continues. “That should do quite nicely. Perhaps process a statement or another, here and there, since our Archivist has been finding his own supply and our dear Alice doesn’t seem intent on picking up the slack on the backlog.”

Jon tenses.

Without missing a beat, Daisy lowers her sunglasses back over her eyes and chirps: “I can’t read.” Jon chortles despite himself; it is weak and it hurts his throat a little, but he relaxes, minutely.

Lukas shifts, leans down to rest his elbow on his knee, his chin in his hand. “You slimy slug,” he comments. His smile hasn’t slipped for a second, nor have his eyes looked away from Elias or blinked. “That’s going to cost you a lot, my dear.”

Elias moves his hand just a few inches to pat Lukas’s knee, where it is encroaching on his desk blotter, with just two fingers, as though the gesture is completely natural. “Still costing you more,” he retorts serenely.

“Really now?”

“Oh yes.”

“Right,” Jon cuts in sharply, rising to his feet, “well, I think we’re done here, so if you don’t mind, my assistants and I shall be on our way.” He takes a step towards Martin

and takes a step towards Martin

and takes a step towards Martin

and there are still miles and miles of distance between them, oceans and continents separating him from Martin, so many more steps to take, he could walk for years and not come even close to reaching him,

and he takes a step towards Martin like walking through a waterfall or a pane of glass, and he is with Martin, and his fingers close around Martin’s wrist.

He pulls, and Martin follows, and Jon marches them all out of there, Martin stumbling on his heels and Daisy, after tipping her sunglasses in a little salute at Lukas and Elias, tagging behind at a cool amble.

Martin’s body temperature is strangely chilly, through his shirt and on the little spot where Jon’s index finger touches the bare skin of his wrist: nothing medically worrying, but clearly colder than a normal person unaffected by the Lonely ought to be in the early July heat; but the fact that Jon can feel it is more proof of Martin’s presence and relative well-being than he’s had in months — in almost a year, really, technically — (God, he hasn’t touched Martin in at least a year, has he?) — and he’s almost giddy with it. In the hallway, when Elias’s door has fallen closed behind them, he turns to face Martin, grinning, thrumming with excited energy and triumph.

Martin tears his wrist free from his grasp and hisses: “What do you think you’re doing?

Something in Jon’s chest drops straight to the pit of his belly.

Helpfully, Daisy chimes in: “Huh-oh.”

“Saving you?!” Jon snaps back, testily. His cheeks are burning again and he’s already feeling his temper rise, he knows, in self-defence reaction against the embarrassment, but knowing how he functions doesn’t help him stop himself.

“Did I look like I needed saving?!” Martin sneers.

Jon gawks. “Yes?

Martin scoffs. It’s a curt, harsh sound, and Jon doesn’t understand, just doesn’t understand any of what is suddenly happening. “I was handling it, thank you!” Martin bristles, crossing his arms, shoving his hands under his armpits, as if to make sure Jon can’t grab his wrists again. “I was doing just fine until you had to come in stomping around, put your nose into everything, almost ruin it all because you won’t trust me —”

And that’s not fair —

How could I know that?!” Jon nearly screeches. He registers the peripheral sight of Daisy wincing and covering her ears, elects to ignore it; Martin doesn’t even flinch. Martin just closes his mouth, jaw tight, and stares stubbornly at the wall behind Jon.

It’s stupid, but his face is so wrong, so unfamiliar, that this is the moment where Jon’s brain finally catches up and figures out — Martin got new glasses, at some point in the past months. He hadn’t been able to put his finger on it. Didn’t see Martin enough for it.

Jon is too tired for this.

He removes his sunglasses to rub at his eyes for a moment. Softer (sobered), he repeats: “How could I possibly know that, Martin? I don’t know anything about what’s been going on with you.”

He looks up, squinting in the light of the hallway. Martin raises his chin and glares at him, right in the eyes, deep scowl and pupils blazing defiantly, pale and undaunted and absolutely ornery and it’s not fair that these are the circumstances in which Martin meets his gaze for the first time in months. Jon had forgotten the colour of his eyes, too. If asked, he would have guessed brown, but they’re a lot lighter than that. Grey; smoke. “Maybe you don’t need to know everything,” Martin says, crisply.

“I need to know you’re okay!” Jon’s voice cracks a little.

He doesn’t think that’s unreasonable, doesn’t see how that could be too much to ask for, but Martin flushes in the span of a second, just spots of deep bright red high on his cheeks in his otherwise too-pale face.

“Oh that is rich coming from you,” Martin Blackwood spits, and whirls around, and Jon instinctively steps after him and reaches for his arm again but can’t catch it in time before Martin feels gone.

Jon watches him walk away, and is cold and alone long before Martin has turned the corner of the hallway.

After a long pause, Daisy comments, evenly: “Could’ve gone better.”

Jon drags his hand over his face. “Thank you, Daisy.”

 

Chapter Text

So that’s a bust.

Well, no, it isn’t. Martin won’t be spirited away where Jon cannot see and protect him, and he won’t be getting weak and ill from too much distance with the Institute. That’s what matters, and on that front the situation, while still not ideal, is somewhat salvaged. It doesn’t objectively matter that Martin still won’t see him, and it doesn’t change anything, either, that since Martin is… detached, Jon cannot even occasionally spot him around his awareness of the Institute. He had already promised not to look for Martin, anyway.

Jon is fine.

“Wow,” remarks Melanie, caustic and amused, leaning in the doorway of the darkened office. “You’re almost looking worse than when you came back from almost dying.”

What does it say about Jon’s life that she could be referring to multiple different times?

“That would be the withdrawal,” Basira comments from the floor.

“I’m not addicted,” Jon sighs. “I told you, it was planned and controlled.”

“Huhuh.”

Melanie’s sunglasses really don’t help him feel respected, not to mention the way her right eyebrow rises above the frame and nearly to her hairline.

“Don’t you have some work to do?” he reminds her snidely.

“Ah, there’s the irritability,” Basira whispers; he ignores it.

Melanie shrugs. “Can’t think of anything. Think Elias will transfer me out if I keep that up? Because that Lukas guy doesn’t sound as bad as statements described him, in the end.”

“He’s worse,” Jon mumbles.

Jon really is doing fine. Bright light still hurts his retinae, but the gashes in his face and arm have almost entirely scarred already, his energy levels are normal for the amount of sleep he’s getting, and the amount of sleep he’s getting is normal considering his nightmares and his nightmares are normal symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The dark dream is unpleasant but a completely natural consequence of confronting the members of a violent cult, staring into an impossible black star, seeing the unseeable, facing a materialisation of pure darkness and its alarming number of teeth from uncomfortably close, having his eyes nearly torn out, getting neatly shot through, almost bleeding out from his face, and spending days in near-blindness and uncertainty that Basira would survive her own wounds.

Jon continues going through the box and finds a particularly interesting letter, which he records over the night, and is back on (relative) full form. Compared to Basira, who can still barely just walk around without help and spends most of her day lying on her stomach, he is doing like a charm.

Daisy… agrees, he thinks. At any rate, she doesn’t automatically tail him absolutely everywhere, and has upgraded his obligation to text when alone outside from every five minutes to ten; though she is still hovering around him like a suspicious drug-sniffer dog and offering unasked-for advice.

“You’re going to hit the peak any time now,” she mumbles, as if she has any idea how dependence to the Eye works. “Prepare for the brunt of it. Tell me the second you start feeling a craving.”

“I have quit smoking on my own before, you know,” he reminds her perfunctorily. She doesn’t give any indication of having heard him.

It has been a little over three weeks and he is fine. He has gone without taking a statement for longer than this before. He’s felt a bit weak and unsettled since whatever Lukas did to him exactly, but nothing getting some rest won’t fix eventually.

Daisy’s latest idea is that Jon needs A Distraction and to do Normal Things, so at that weekend, he takes advantage of the lack of Archers episode on Saturday evenings and he goes out, in actual (low) sunlight, to go shop for new, perfectly non-supernatural books. The coma incident, not to mention the general worrying about potential ends of the world, has put him quite behind on his to-read pile; there’s a history book on female figures in piracy that came out last year which he’s been meaning to get to since before the Unknowing, and that one philosophical essay he had picked up from Georgie’s shelves and skimmed through, and forgot to finish reading before he moved out.

He is standing in Foyles, eyeing a new edition of A General History of the Pyrates and trying to rationalise that he doesn’t need it, when he spots him.

The man has been standing in the queue for the café since before Jon arrived, and he has not been able to place an order yet. The workers keep skipping him and moving on to someone else, other customers walking up to the counter before him, everyone speaking literally over him — and this is all the more remarkable for the fact that he is not lost in the crowd, not the kind of invisible that results in people stumbling into him; on the contrary, the waiters and patrons move around him as they shuffle around the counter. There is a wide circle of emptiness around him, a clear area where no one treads. He is not unseen, merely unable to be heard or catch anyone’s attention.

This feels familiar, though Jon cannot pinpoint any statement describing something like this; he’s sure this is the Lonely at work, but it doesn’t resemble Ms. Herne’s experience. Nothing in common with Carter Chilcott’s misadventures in space, basically the opposite of Ms. Nunis’s encounter on her solo travelling. Doesn’t quite match Carlita Sloane’s account of the crew of Peter Lukas’s ship, either. It’s familiar in a closer way than this, in the sense that Jon has seen this himself, not through anyone else’s words and eyes — and with a jolt, he finally recognises where. Who.

This is what happened in Elias’s office, when Jon couldn’t focus on Martin for longer than a glance, his eyes and attention sliding off of Martin to the point of not even thinking to talk to him, not looking at him, forgetting he was there even though he was the single reason for Jon’s presence and all he could talk about. This is what happened — has been — is happening to Martin.

The man is not alone, just unable to connect.

Except when, suddenly, he does.

As Jon watches transfixed, he nods to himself and walks up to the counter, without anyone reacting to him, and lightly, carefully pushes someone aside to physically insert himself at the head of the queue — the shovee stumbles, and proceeds to not pay any mind to that fact. “Hi,” says the man to the clerk.

“Next customer!” she calls over him.

Gently, he insists: “Hi! I’m right here.”

And she blinks. “Oh,” she says, dazed, “oh, yes, hello sir.” She flounders, like her instinct is automatically telling her to apologise but she can’t reason out why.

“Hello. I’ll have a cappuccino, to go, please, and the lemon drizzle cake —”

And he places his order, and pays, and politely snaps her attention back five times until he has everything, and then the clerk calls on the next customer while he is still standing there, trying to balance his drink and little paper bag with his book satchel. Finally, he goes, and the crowd parts before him without anyone sparing a glance. He looks neither surprised nor particularly upset by this fact.

In the street, too, the passers-by all steer well clear of him on the crowded pavement, until he stops one to ask them for directions, and Jon needs to know how he’s doing that, how he learned to deal with supernatural isolation and to escape it at will, wants to know why, what happened to him, what his story is —

A hand grabs his arm and pulls him sharply backwards, jostling him out of step.

“What. Are you. Doing?” Daisy seethes into his ear.

This is when Jon becomes aware of the buzzing in his pocket. Earlier this week, she had him set his phone to repeat new text alerts until they are read.

“Ah, sorry, did I forget to notify you?”

Yes. What are you doing?”

Jon glances back. The man is reaching the next street corner. “Can we walk and talk? He’s getting away.”

“You leave that bloke alone,” Daisy hisses, and Jon laughs, because it is funny, that choice of words, and she moves in front of him with a fire in her eyes like she’s going to rip him apart.

He stops laughing. “No, no, Daisy, you don’t get it. It’s fine,” he explains. This does not seem to assuage her, nor does she stop blocking his way and glaring into his eyes (he realises he has forgotten to put his sunglasses back on and the summer evening sunlight hurts, has been hurting for a while) so he elaborates, a little impatiently: “It’s the Lonely. I just… I was thinking this could help Martin.”

“How?” she barks, dry, curt, cold. Ruthless, but not emotional: implacable.

“Well, I don’t know, since I haven’t —”

“I’m very curious, Jon, because I don’t think Martin would appreciate you mugging some random poor traumatised bugger for your fix on pretext of helping him.”

“That is not it, Daisy!” Jon snaps back, rightfully incensed. “I know what I’m doing —”

“Then what the fuck are you doing?” She moves right up to bar his way again when he tries to sidestep her, even slams her arm against the wall in front of his face, and he has no time for this; the man is easy to spot even at this distance, with the crowd parting around him, but he is about to cross the street and Jon really might lose him if Daisy keeps this up.

“Daisy,” he cracks impatiently, “get out of my way,” and he shoves past her on the other side, and she doesn’t move this time.

Jon hurries, across the street, keeping his eyes on the lonesome man ahead, follows him for another block —

and is tackled, full-body, and thrown to the pavement, crushed under Daisy’s entire weight, for a few seconds of choking choking choking — before she jumps back to her feet and pulls him up by the scruff of his collar.

“Daisy, what in the hell —!”

She doesn’t even look at him. Wordlessly, she drags him, as he kicks and loudly protests and makes a fine scene in the middle of the busy road, all the way into a small, quiet park in a side street. She shoves him down onto a bench, slams him back down with both hands on his shoulders when he tries to straighten up, and growls harshly into his face: “Take it out.”

“What?” His eyes are prickling and his head aches, too, now, as if millions of needles were attached to his sockets and a stake speared through his temples.

“The recorder in your pocket. Take it out.”

He does, instinctively, without thinking, and because he is not thinking he reaches into the wrong pocket, and still finds a tape recorder there. It’s already running, purring in his shaking hand.

“So you’re hungry?” Daisy snarls. “I’ve got a story for you. 7th July, 2018, statement of Daisy Tonner about her second Section 31.”

She stares him in the eyes, her face stern, her glare dark. Waiting.

“Ask me.”

Jon’s throat is dry, as are his stinging eyes. He forces himself to blink, to rub his knuckles into them. Swallows, licks his lips, a little nervously. When he opens his mouth, the words pour out like liquid from an unstoppered bottle, simply, just following gravity.

“What happened?”

Daisy’s mouth twists bitterly.

“On the third of February 2003,” she recites, “while investigating a house fire, my team found a basement full of spider husks the size of people.”

Jon’s breath hitches and his heart starts beating faster, as his mind’s eye provides him with the mental picture of it: spiders, that large, and getting larger, extracting themselves from their own skeletons and leaving them behind — Martin told him all about how spiders molt years ago and his brain has not forgotten any detail. An entire basement of them.

“Th-that’s all right, Basira told me about that already,” he croaks.

Daisy leans into his face.

“What Basira doesn’t know is that they weren’t all empty.”

 


 

“Me and the surviving medical examiner and four officers signed yet one more Section 31,” Daisy concludes, “and we moved on, as usual.”

The story isn’t quite over, though. Jon’s mouth opens almost of its own accord, chasing the last crumbs of details, licking the plate. “How did they cover that up?”

“Blamed food poisoning for that one, if I recall,” Daisy scoffs.

“And you never encountered those things again?”

“Nope. Got plenty of other spider stories where that came from, though.” She gives him a parody of a grin that is more about baring her teeth than anything else. Like an animal bristling to make itself seem bigger and more dangerous; it doesn’t work entirely to conceal how tired she is, so small, for all the tales she contains.

“No, that’s all right,” Jon mumbles. He catches himself stroking his own arms again, to shake off the phantom feeling of spider legs curling around him from behind; repurposes the gesture into fishing in his pockets for his sunglasses and cigarettes.

Daisy swats the lighter out of his hand. It falls beside him on the bench with a loud clatter of metal against metal. “You stop with that thing.”

“I need to calm down,” he retorts, and picks it back up.

“No, I’m the one you need to be calm.” She sniffs and glares the entire time he lights up, but lets it go. “Think you don’t get what’s going on here, pal.”

She moves a few steps to the side; upwind. It occurs to Jon that it is not solely because of his smoke.

“You almost assaulted a random civilian,” she enunciates, “and I hunted you down.”

He flicks the Zippo shut. “I knew what I was doing.”

Not making it better, and also, shut the hell up. I know an addict when I see one.”

“Daisy, it wasn’t…” he sighs. “This man’s situation, if I knew about it, I could help Martin.”

“You can’t help Martin, Jon,” she hammers in, brusquely. The declining sun finishes passing behind her, suddenly throwing a halo of backlight over her hair, stark shadows over her face. “He doesn’t need help, he doesn’t want it, he told you to stop.”

Jon takes a deep breath, in and out, trying to keep his composure. “Martin,” he starts again, as reasonably as possible, “is in a bad place right now. And he may not be able to see it, from his position. But I cannot leave him in there any more than I could leave you in the coffin.”

She kicks the bench, right next to him, so hard and sudden his teeth knock together painfully and he almost swallows his cigarette.

“Don’t you dare.”

She looks like she might kill him if he opens his mouth again.

“It’s true,” he says.

She kicks the bench again. The entire thing vibrates and rattles all the way into his bones and gums. “I don’t care, Jon! There’s a difference between —” She cuts herself off with a furious groan that is almost a roar, rakes her hand through her hair with such contained violence that it looks like she just wants to pull it out. “We all feel bad, all the time. You can’t attack innocent people to maybe help one of us.”

“You know what I —”

“I. Don’t. Care. Jon,” and she squats down in front of him suddenly, not even twitching at the smoke he accidentally lets blow into her face, “I mean it, if you don’t shut up, I’m going to kill you. That’s our problem right now.”

He has to bite his lip. She notices. Her wide eyes snap to where his teeth are digging into his flesh and he only just barely manages to stop right before drawing blood.

He doesn’t want to die. He’s still terrified of dying. This isn’t about that. This is about how irrelevant that is, in the grand scheme of things.

“So hurry it up,” Daisy whispers, unblinking. Jon can almost hear, or feel, her heart beating, steady, strong, loud, louder and louder. The sound of her blood rushing through her veins. Loud enough to drown out any thought, or screams. “Then we go back, and I lock you in the office.”

 


 

It takes them the better part of an hour to get home, since Daisy won’t take the tube and Jon had stalked the man for quite a distance by the time she caught up to him.

She doesn’t actually lock him into the office. She hands him over to Basira, who does the honours, silently.

Of course, he isn’t going to sleep. He didn’t get his books, in the end, apparently, but he does have the remainders of the box of statements; even without Basira to work through it with him, it isn’t like he can’t do anything on his own.

Around two in the morning, a small spider crawls over his page and he’s so taken by surprise that, like an idiot, he bats it away frantically instead of killing it, and loses sight of it, and he’s locked inside his own dark office with a spider, inside his own office, crawling and scuttling unseen in the darkness inside his own office.

He turns all the lights of the room on, manages to keep them so for five minutes before he thinks his eyes are going to start bleeding. He genuinely considers screaming for someone to come open up, but he chomps it down, half guilt and half uncertainty that there is any mercy left for him today. He bites on his knuckles and sits with his back to the wall, tries not to think that the spider is so small it could crawl over him and spin its web in his hair, slip under his clothes, bite his skin, and he wouldn’t notice. That’s more of the Dark’s domain, he tells himself, hysterically, but of course that does not soothe the panic at all. He caves in and lights another cigarette to try and cool down his raw nerves, ends up stressing about the ash instead and almost immediately snubs it out in an old forgotten mug of tea.

He misses Martin.

Which is just typical, honestly. Nothing to be done about it.

 


 

He survives the night.

He hasn’t slept, which at least means he hasn’t dreamed. On Sunday morning, Basira lets him out, and Daisy is nowhere to be seen all day; she doesn’t even show up to have him listen to The Archers with her. They don’t talk about it, or anything.

Basira locks him up that night again, too.

 


 

On Monday morning, Basira calls him a nerd as she opens, Daisy is back (if quiet), Melanie is going around picking up the dirty laundry lying around everywhere, and Martin is in the library.

 


 

The girls have developed a certain look, that they pass around between each other wordlessly, even with Basira’s sunglasses and Daisy’s sombre scowl. Usually Jon only gets about half of these silent conversations, probably because they very often seem to be calumny on his account, but he thinks he can get the gist of it this time: Daisy would be the obvious first choice to tail him, but she is giving him the cold shoulder right now, and Basira would be the first choice for the library but her injuries now make the trip upstairs a much more daunting expedition.

Thus the actual spoken conversation consists only of Melanie volunteering with largesse and no apparent prompting: “You do the laundry and I’ll take him. I’ve got some books to check out for therapy homework anyway.”

It does feel like being babysat, and it does feel strange and insulting, as a grown adult; not to mention by someone younger. Well, assumedly younger — Jon isn’t exactly on birthday terms with her, either, but he is fairly sure that Melanie hasn’t hit thirty yet.

“How’s… Hope the therapy is going well,” he says, awkwardly, to fill the silence as they climb the stairs.

She shrugs. “It’s all right. Good, I think. She suggested trying to go back to my old passions, so.”

“So ghost hunting?”

“Well, I’m not expecting to find academic publications on ghost hunting Youtube channels in the Magnus Institute library, so hauntings in general, I guess. You can recommend me some books, can’t you?”

“… A few, yes. Hauntings do comprise about half of the library’s collections.”

She snorts and pushes the door.

Jon forces himself to stay still while Melanie riffles through her pockets for her employee badge, chatting quietly with the librarian about where to start looking. Today it’s Tom or something manning the counter; he eyes Jon in the special way the entire population of the Institute seems to have of staring warily at Jon yet avoiding eye contact even through the sunglasses, and doesn’t ask him for anything.

The second they’re cleared, Jon heads off through the rows of shelves without hesitation, to where Martin is sitting in a tucked-away corner, invisible from the entrance. Melanie follows him for part of the way before stopping and ostentatiously taking a seat at another table, where she will both be at a healthy distance yet keep them in her line of sight.

Martin doesn’t look up at their approach. He is curled up in one of the oldest, most battered armchairs of the library, eyes on his book, elbow on the table over his notepad and cheek smushed on his hand, legs crossed with his feet on the seat and one knee tucked up close to his chest. This is only one of a dozen of unexplainable positions Jon had seen him sit in hundreds of times in the years they worked together. He is aware, painfully, that three years ago he would have snapped at Martin for this unprofessionalism.

It is a comforting sight, now, even though Jon would never have thought to list ‘Martin’s typical appalling ways of sitting’ as something he has been missing.

Martin still doesn’t look up, so Jon, slowly, takes a seat in the empty chair across from him; tries not to let the feet rattle too loudly on the floor, tries not to disturb, just sits there and drinks in the sight of Martin working. He has bad bags under his eyes, and he is still pale, though nothing that seems genuinely alarming. Whenever he blinks, it’s twice in quick succession. There’s a wrinkle between his furrowed eyebrows, right over a particularly concentrated nebula of freckles. He’s holding a pencil and he rolls it between his thumb and forefinger, occasionally swings it in the air like the branch of a tree gently swaying in the wind, and God, this is such a benign case but Jon is suddenly reminded of all of Martin’s constant fidgeting in the Archives work room, that used to drive him insane to the point of retreating to his office. That’s why the Archives feel so empty and still these days, even now that Daisy has brought the number of assistants back up to three again.

Absent-mindedly, Martin raises the pencil up, and pauses, and Jon knows — completely mundanely, just from having seen it so often, just from having spent so much time with Martin — that he was about to nibble on the end of it, and only caught himself because Jon is there, watching him, and has flown off the handle about his pen-biting countless times. Martin lowers the pencil again, slowly, but the quality of the silence has changed.

Less than a minute later, he asks, flatly: “What.”

Jon hasn’t actually thought of what he wanted to tell him. He didn’t find out how the man from this weekend breached through the Lonely, he still doesn’t know what Peter Lukas’s project is. There isn’t anything.

“Nothing.”

“Sure.” Martin’s tone isn’t biting but it is… dry. A thin veneer of barely-polite calm, ready to crack and reveal — whatever is beneath the varnish. Anger, if their last talk has been any indication. He turns his page, to a picture of some crowded sculptural mural (a church lintel, perhaps?), quickly flips to the next to hide it from Jon’s prying eyes.

Quietly, mollifyingly, Jon offers: “I just wanted to see you.”

Martin makes an absolutely hurtful but fascinating grimace at this: he still doesn’t look up from his book for a second, but his eyebrows arch and rise aggressively high and his mouth twists and purses into the most sarcastic, sceptical of moues. That is new to Jon’s eyes.

“Reassuring,” he says, toneless. “I told you to stop trying to find me.”

“I’m not —” Martin’s eyes jump up to him, just a second, just to catch his and stare daggers through his dark lenses, eloquently, hard grey steel, and Jon huffs under his breath. “This isn’t that. I’m not trying to find out what you’re doing.”

Eyes back on his book, Martin makes a short sound from the back of his throat, a little hmm, acknowledging but unconvinced. Jon didn’t know he could be that cutting without speaking.

“I,” he starts, uncertain, and doesn’t know how to continue.

But after a few, long seconds, Martin looks up at him again, and it still isn’t anywhere near warm or encouraging, but it is now expectant rather than dissuasive. So, for Martin, Jon tries again.

Communication.

“I am trying not to,” he says, carefully, “but it is getting harder.”

Martin blinks, just once; doesn’t otherwise react nor take his eyes away. Jon still isn’t quite used to his new glasses. The frame is thinner than his previous ones, dainty and elegant, a very nice design to be honest, clearly expensive. They don’t not suit him, but they clash badly with Jon’s memory, the Platonic idea of Martin Blackwood.

Jon sighs.

“I’ve been aimless, and worried, and —”

Without an ounce of self-consciousness, Martin rolls his eyes. This, Jon had seen before, but never aimed this obviously at him, never to his face. It occurs to him now that it must have happened behind his back, though, at the very least back during their first year at the Archives, when he was being a stuck-up dickhead. He almost hopes so.

“— and I’m beginning to know about you,” he finishes.

After a pregnant pause, Martin points out, dangerously mild: “You said —”

“Not about your plans. Just things like, where you are in the Institute, how much sleep you had last night, what you had for breakfast.”

Another pause, and Martin goes, “Hm-hmm.” His face is completely blank, in such a way that it must be controlled. Daisy and Basira do this a lot, generally when Jon is confessing to something they’re not happy about.

“Every morning you have a single mug of English Breakfast, with a glass of milk on the side, not in it. Usually you have a bowl of porridge, but you finished the box and forgot to buy more, so today you had two pieces of toast. One butter, one butter and raspberry jam. You made three, but you dropped one in your lap, had to change your trousers —”

Martin drops his pencil; it bounces off the table, clatters and rolls on the floor. “Did you watch me change?!” he squeaks, suddenly about two entire octaves higher-pitched.

“No, no, I’m not watching you!” Jon protests. “I just know! You’ll have to do a load of laundry tonight, by the way, you’re running out of trousers.”

Martin doesn’t get up to retrieve his pencil. His hand is a tight fist on the page of his book now. “And you’re telling me this because?

“Because —” Jon gestures helplessly into the empty air between them “— communication, honesty, trust, all that. I’m telling you I am trying to keep away, like you asked me to, but I am not doing great at it. Currently.”

“So what you’re saying is you can’t help it,” Martin concludes, dry and cold as a winter wasteland. “It’s taking over and you can’t control it anymore.”

“I mean, it’s harmless little things, but I suppose so,” Jon sighs.

He takes off his sunglasses to rub his eyes. When he is done, Martin is still staring at him, unblinking, expressionless. Mouth in a tight line. Jaw set. Distractedly, Jon notes that this is the closest they’ve come to being literally eye-to-eye in a long time, though Martin still has his own expensive new frames on and the wall of their thick lenses. The silence goes on and on and it has shifted again, Jon notices; something is missing from it, and it isn’t until Martin, extremely slowly, extremely quietly, exhales through his nose, that Jon realises it had been the sound of Martin’s breathing as he held it.

The silence is turning brisk. The temperature of the silence is dropping. Wordlessly, coldly, Martin reaches around his pulled-up knee and into his jacket, takes something from an inside pocket, reaches out over his book to set it down on the table in front of Jon.

It’s a cassette tape. Not exactly a surprising object, and there is nothing remarkable about it at first sight. Winded up, simple label; just a date, from about a month ago. When Jon was still on the way to Ny-Ålesund.

“Listen to it with Daisy,” Martin says, in no particular way. Jon has never before heard him say Daisy’s name without audible distaste, but now he cannot parse Martin’s tone at all. It isn’t cutting or angry anymore, not even cold; just… nothing. Detached. An absence, all the way into his voice. He hasn’t taken his eyes off the tape — hasn’t raised them to look at Jon.

“Jon,” Melanie says behind him, and he jumps and glances around to find her standing behind his chair, “d’you have a jacket or something? It’s getting chilly in here.”

She’s rubbing her bare arms, shivering slightly in her ripped The Babadook T-shirt. Jon starts removing his cardigan without even thinking; hands it to her; turns back around. The armchair across from him is empty.

“Thanks,” Melanie says. “Oh, I guess you guys are done?”

Jon swallows.

“I suppose we are.”

He puts his sunglasses back on, pockets the tape as he stands up. He picks up the pencil on the ground and lays it back on the table, next to the book that’s still lying there, open wide. A minuscule spider skitters across the page and Jon swats it off immediately, on instinct. The glossy page flips under his fingers, turns back to the same picture Martin didn’t want him to see, begging for him to look closer, to take the book and read it, to find out, to get even a hint. He backs away.

Melanie raises an eyebrow. “Need a smoke? Don’t let the staff see that in here.”

“No, of course not. Did you find anything?”

“Yeah, Tom knows his stuff about paranormal investigation. This one seems a bit, uh, gruesome, though.”

Jon pretends to look at the title of the tome she’s waving about. “Ah. Yes. Better not start with this one, I think.”

“Hah. It’s fine, I’ve got like, five others. What about you? Got some peace of mind?”

Jon slips his lighter back in his pocket and takes the tape out; runs his thumb across the face of it. ‘2018-06-12’, says the label, in Martin’s handwriting.

“Not exactly, but I’ve got… something.”

 


 

‘J-just tell him, like, like I mean that, it’s not okay.

I don’t know what he did, but it — you know, he can’t just go around and well, you know, just keep doing…

I just, I don’t want to see him again, all right? Ever.

‘What the hell do I do with that?! I mean, Christ, Jon, that — that’s not okay!’

Daisy clicks off the tape recorder at this point. There’s something charming about it, in a heart-wrenching way, the tiny kindness of this concern for privacy, in the circumstances they have all lived in for the past couple years.

Jon doesn’t know what face she’s making, because he has his own in his hands and he absolutely cannot look at her.

For ages he cannot say a word, and Daisy says nothing either. He knows she’s still there; he can hear her breathing. It is very regular. He thinks she might be focusing on it. For long, long minutes, he focuses on it, too.

When eventually Daisy speaks, it is in a flat tone.

“You remember her?”

He nods, weakly. He remembers her face, vaguely. Her story, down to every single detail that she hasn’t told Martin, and the taste of her terror, vile and sticky in his throat, nectar and mead.

“How many?”

He swallows around the thick lump in his throat. Eyes still closed, wrenches one hand from his face; raises three fingers.

“With her and the guy on the boat?” She hasn’t missed a beat.

Slowly, he raises two more shaking fingers.

For the span of one of Daisy’s cycles of inhale and exhale, he can feel her stare at his outstretched open palm, but it doesn’t stop her.

“Did you like it?”

Her voice hasn’t changed at all, is doing nothing to disguise, despite the casual tone, that this is an interrogation. Feels strange, being on this side of it; feels awful. He should know this by now.

He breathes in, deeply, almost chokes on it; is half scared that she’ll take his silence as reluctance and move on to her more brutal methods, but she waits. He gasps and swallows and works his way through it, and when he’s reasonably confident that he won’t throw up the second he opens his mouth, he lets the strangled chuckle bubble out from his lips and smother itself against his palm.

“No. I loved it.”

He has to look her in the eye while he says this, doesn’t he? He owes her this much.

He lowers his hands and drags his head up, heavy as the world, opens his eyes to meet hers. She’s leaning back in her chair, arms and legs crossed defiantly, but her fingers are clutching her arms and her knuckles are white, her clipped nails digging into the meat of her muscles.

But she waits for him to continue.

“It felt amazing,” Jon whispers. Every word stings his tongue. Secrets and truth, too, are their own horrors to be afraid of. “It felt wonderful. All of them, but especially her. I felt rested for the first time since…”

(Since the previous one.)

“I’d been so tired and so hungry, and suddenly I felt… good,” he admits, miserably. “Powerful.”

She was afraid of him, too. Is. He took that from her as well.

He closes his eyes and waits for Daisy to dig her fist into his chest. Take him out, put him down. He’s not even sure it would kill him; what can one hunter’s hand in the heart do that sixteen boxes of C4 or the opposite of the Sun couldn’t? But he hopes it would.

Instead, her voice still as mechanical, giving nothing away, Daisy asks: “Was it worth it?”

He could cry. He ought to cry; wants to. The tears aren’t coming, his eyes remain completely barren and God, please don’t let him have lost that, too. Please let him still be able to cry tears.

He speaks in a dry, incredulous sob: “No.” Tries to breathe, ends up gasping again, his lungs unable to fully expand as though grief is a weight compressing his chest. “I didn’t realise — and I had to be ready, I thought — but no. No. No, it wasn’t.”

Daisy’s sigh is an explosion in the silence, and then she says, very clearly and articulately: “Fuck.

He opens his eyes again. She hasn’t technically shifted from her position, but she is now slumped in the chair, her entire body having relaxed as if she had been actively fighting gravity up until just now.

“Shit,” she adds. “Good.”

Good?” he croaks.

“Yeah. If that’s how you feel about it, then I can work with that.”

“Can you?” he manages to snort. “You were right. I’m… I need help.”

“Knew that,” she scoffs, derisively. “More importantly, I need help.”

She uncrosses all of her limbs, stretches, stands painstakingly.

“‘Fraid I’m locking you in here again,” she states, to which he nods without even thinking about it, “and I’m gathering everyone.”

 

Chapter Text

Jon sits on the floor against the wall in his dark office, rubbing his arms up and down, his hands against each other, over and over, heart hammering in his dry throat. He isn’t locked in, this time; the point is just that he is not to be involved in this decision at all. Technically, it also allows his team to speak freely, but they’re all quite aware that his flimsy door has never done much to muffle sounds.

He understands, of course, but part of him wishes he could sit in, yearns to hear, again, his entire team all in the same room, even if to argue and shout at each other — but at least physically together. Of course, the last time this happened, Tim was alive and Daisy wasn’t officially an assistant, and it was about Elias’s face behind the mask, what he had done and what he could do to them. The inception of their need to start plotting how to take him down. Today, it’s about Jon.

He heard horrified gasps and angry muttering, earlier. Basira had a long monologue; he suspects she finally told the other two about the incident on the boat trip. Melanie swore rather spectacularly. Martin chimes in occasionally, short and dry.

Jon’s surprised Daisy went and nabbed Martin. Not sure how she tracked him back down. Not sure how she convinced him to join in this, after he heard — after he took that statement. That complaint. Not sure how he even tolerated Jon talking to him, to be honest.

Daisy speaks again, for the first time in a while, very low, a droning buzz, which Jon cannot pick a single word out of, but her intonations do not sound optimistic. Unsurprising; there isn’t exactly a lot of hope. Nothing to do. Jon is a monster and now they know he’s out of control.

There are alternatives, though.

The sickly yellow door that has never been in the wall on the other side of the room doesn’t creak open, doesn’t tremble. Its handle doesn’t move. It simply waits.

Jon knows it is unlocked.

It is… soothing. It is an option; a way, out.

Slowly, Jon’s frantic heartbeat calms down, his hands stop shaking. He sits, his back against the wall opposite the door, and watches it, and waits, and listens.

Now, there’s nearly yelling. Not actually yelling, because it is Martin’s voice, and Martin doesn’t yell, just speaks calmly, increasingly louder and more snappishly but never quite breaching the threshold of technically polite volume. Jon is trying not to listen to the words, though for once, it’s for his own benefit. He would probably automatically tick on to hearing his own name, but he doesn’t catch it.

Basira says something, and Martin huffs, loudly, but doesn’t reply.

Jon catches himself scratching nervously at the scabbing scars on his left forearm, and stops himself, even though it doesn’t matter much, at this point.

He considers lighting a cigarette again. Basira was not impressed last time, but that would be such a mild offense, in proportion. Would barely register. And he can’t bring himself to worry, this time, about the risk of setting fire to the Archives. It isn’t like he has never burned something in here, anyway. It would hurt even more, certainly. Doesn’t make it a bad idea.

There is the sound of a handle turning, and his eyes jump in reflex to the door that does open, the door that has always been the entrance to his office, with its pompous little Head Archivist brass plaque that he used to be so proud of. He shields his eyes against the dim light spilling in with one hand, feels around on the floor for his sunglasses with the other. When he slides them on, it is the only door in the room, and Melanie’s silhouette is standing in its frame. She motions him out wordlessly, before disappearing.

Jon stops in the doorway, blinking tiredly in the low light. They’ve pushed a desk in the middle of the main room again and they’re all gathered around it, his team of assistants and the one who isn’t anymore, fallen silent, all either staring at him (Melanie isn’t blinking) or obviously refusing to even look (Daisy is sitting with her back to him and did not turn at his entrance). Standing there, being seen and judged or denied even acknowledgment, Jon feels naked and cold. It is not a new feeling, but he’s not used to getting it from them.

“So.” Basira is seated at the head of the desk-table, hands together, face sterner than he’s ever seen it, giving him nothing. It’s a face he could imagine her wearing while interrogating suspects as a Police Constable, though even in those days she had never looked at him like this. The sunglasses do tarnish the intimidating power of it somewhat, but not entirely, and they certainly don’t stop Jon from feeling like she’s boring holes into his skull. “First order of affairs, you’re now being monitored 24/7, starting with staying at Martin’s for a while.”

That gives Jon a bit of a pause. “Pardon?”

“You need to be contained, and Daisy needs a break from you, and luckily one of us still has a place and a free room.”

She jerks her chin in the direction of Martin, sitting at the far end of the desk, laid back in his chair with his arms crossed. He sticks out in all kinds of ways again, not the least of all being that he is the only one in the room not wearing sunglasses on his person. (Daisy’s are still perched on her head, and Melanie’s are hooked from the collar of her T-shirt. Jon assumes they have both forgotten about them.)

“So, you’re getting locked up until you’ve ridden out the peak of withdrawal and you’ve proven you can control yourself.”

“That’s not…” Jon falters, half aggrieved and half just ashamed. “I don’t think that’s how it works, it’s not an addiction. I just… need it. It’s not about controlling it.”

“Well you’re going to have to figure out how to anyway,” she retorts without missing a beat. “Either you learn to live without it, or you die. Whichever you do, you do it at Martin’s.”

“And Martin is fine with that?” Jon checks, still in balking disbelief.

“Martin is not happy with it,” Martin chimes in, dry and curt, “but this is fine, sure. Whatever.” He has his eyes on a ballpoint pen he’s playing with, clicking it in and out against the surface of the desk. The sound is grating, but no one tells him to knock it off. “It’s not like it’ll change anything for me, and my flat is secure.” Click. “Perfect for this, even.”

Jon catches himself chewing on his lip nervously, stops himself from trying to meet Martin’s eyes. Martin never raises his gaze above the level of the desk anyway.

He struggles to ask, for once, but he knows he ought to. “What if I…”

Click. “Try to take my statement?” Martin’s voice is simultaneously light and heavy with sarcasm about as subtle as a slap in the face. He sighs, not very loudly, but very long, and then he says simply: “Can handle it.”

“We’ll see how that goes, and how long it needs to,” Basira continues, but she seems genuinely not worried about that issue. “Once you can behave yourself again, plan is that we’ll be rotating you around, but we’ll get there when we do.” She hasn’t said if, Jon notes, incredulous. “In the meantime, the main point of issue is your victims. What was the name of that last one?”

“Floyd Matharu,” he replies without a thought.

“Right, no, that one’s gonna be tricky anyway. The one before that?”

“Before him, the woman on the tape. Jess Tyrell. Statement…” he breathes in “... taken 28th May, 2018.”

“You got the names of all of them?”

He looks at her. Belatedly remembers he’s wearing sunglasses, but the message seems to get through anyway.

“Right,” she says. “Well, write those down for us, and all the personal details to find them.”

“By which she means of course what you already know,” Melanie interjects sharply. Basira opens her mouth, and Melanie cuts her off with a decisive: “No new knowing.”

“‘Course,” Jon whispers.

Basira pushes a notepad across to him, rummages through the drawer of the desk for a pen, while Martin continues clicking his on and off the whole time and never offers it. Eventually she finds one and Jon sits down and starts writing. None of the people from after the coma gave him their names, but he remembers them anyway. The places he met them. The places their stories happened. Exact dates.

As he works, Basira resumes: “While you’re off, we’re going to be looking into contacting them, see what we can do to help. Well, that’ll be Daisy mostly, seems like.” Daisy nods, still without saying anything. “We’ll see what we can have you do on that end, but obviously you’re not gonna be chasing down these people.”

“I’m assuming you don’t need the other monsters, then,” Jon tries.

“Nah. Only the people who are in your dreams and shouldn’t be there.”

“The older ones too, then.”

“Mmm.”

There’s a moment of quiet, with only the regular clicking of Martin’s pen and the scratching of Jon’s on the paper.

“Jesus,” Melanie lets slip. “That’s a long list.”

Jon keeps writing while she squints at his paper upside-down.

“‘Georgie Bark—’ You have Georgie in your dreams?!”

He doesn’t meet her eyes. “Didn’t know how it worked at the time,” he croaks. That’s not quite true. He already suspected. “She… wanted to talk about it.” He shouldn’t have agreed. He should have at least told her.

He can feel Melanie’s dark glare on him as he turns a page over and continues, mechanically, empty.

He goes through two years of visitors to the Institute and still remembers their names, too, as well as their case numbers and the contact details they’d given Rosie.

When he’s finished, Basira pulls the notepad back without touching his fingers, and hands it over to Daisy, who starts reading it in silence. Basira lays her hands flat on the table, like a judge slamming her gavel. “All right. Last comments, questions?”

Martin shrugs, Melanie grunts wordlessly. Daisy still doesn’t move, and somehow her lack of reaction is even more corrosive than the sum of the coldness from the other three.

“Then I think we’re done here. Go grab your stuff, Jon.”

He needs a moment to gather his wits. “That’s — that’s it?”

“For now, yeah.” Her sunglasses shield her face, but he knows that her expression would be inscrutable even if she were to remove them. “And if you’re not happy with it, I really, really don’t care.”

“No, I —” He clears his throat, a little at a loss for words. “I didn’t expect… that much effort.”

Her eyes still on the list of Jon’s victims, Daisy says, sudden and cutting: “Wow, I really want to avoid killing you. Unbelievable.”

“That… makes sense,” Jon admits. Still not looking at him, Daisy leans out of her chair and gives him a fake punch in the arm, pressing into his bone with no force or speed.

Jon takes his glasses off again to take his face into his hands and exhales, long and deep. Again. And again. Focusing on the sound of it, of his heartbeat, on the fake warm darkness of his own hands against his eyelids.

Once he feels capable of speaking again without his voice shaking, he raises his head and whispers: “Okay.”

“We’re not asking you,” Melanie retorts, quietly.

At the other side of the table, Martin shoulders his bag and stands without a word.

Still reeling, Jon chuckles nervously. “I suppose I’ll pack up, then.”

 


 

Martin does not take him to the tube.

“I thought you lived in Stockwell?”

“I moved last year,” Martin replies tonelessly, and Jon can guess what prompted the move, or rather, what allowed it, so the conversation falls away, and they walk side by side in the summer twilight in tense silence. Martin’s pace is brisk, and Jon does his best to match it despite the load he’s carrying.

Martin now lives just a short walk from the Institute, right by the Thames, in a tall, modern building that stands out from the red-brick houses of the block right across the road. He scans a key card to walk inside, to activate the lift, to unlock his door. The entire structure has a slightly unsettling minimalistic style, empty oddly wide spaces, bare walls, low lighting. As they navigate through it, they don’t see or hear anyone.

Martin’s flat itself, when he opens his own door, is quite a few degrees colder than the common hallway, and completely dark. Martin goes for the light switch and Jon’s arm shoots up on instinct to shield his eyes from the new bright light.

“Photosensitivity,” he volunteers. “A little gift from looking into the Dark Sun. It’s getting better, but still hurts a bit for now. Hence the glasses,” he finally thinks to explain, feeling more than slightly ridiculous.

“Wasn’t gonna ask,” Martin mutters under his breath. “Well, lucky for you, they’re dimmable.”

He rotates the button and the lights go down, to a level where Jon can actually take the sunglasses off almost comfortably. Martin locks the door behind him and pockets the key card.

The flat opens on a long, narrow hallway, with pristine white walls, entirely bare. There’s something almost active to the emptiness of it, as if shaming the lack of family photographs, overburdened coat hangers or giraffe-shaped growth chart. Jon stands there awkwardly, holding his bags and boxes, while Martin drops his messenger bag on the floor at the entrance and peels off his shoes.

“So, your bathroom’s over there,” he says, pointing vaguely down the hallway, “pick a bedroom. Here’s the lounge,” he walks a few paces down the corridor and pushes open a door that Jon somehow hadn’t noticed until then.

Jon tries to reconcile himself with the idea of Martin living alone in a Chelsea flat huge enough to apparently have multiple baths and bedrooms. “That’s a… big place you’ve got here,” he says, in jarred awe.

Martin shrugs. “Lukas property. Kitchen here,” he pushes that door open. “Help yourself to the fridge,” he adds, walking off and opening yet another door.

“Oh, you’re not…?”

“I’ve eaten.” And he slams the panel behind him, so fast Jon can’t even catch a glimpse of the inside of that room. He blinks and doesn’t even remember which closed door it was.

“Right,” Jon says to empty space. “Right.”

This isn’t a surprise, of course. This is all he should expect, this is more than he expected, from all of them and especially from Martin. That doesn’t make it feel any better.

The kitchen is large and fully equipped, the kind Jon is vaguely aware is supposedly trendy, with white countertops and stainless steel finishes. Huge fridge, huge oven, bar stools. It’s right out of the pages of an interior design magazine, spotless surfaces, such an absence of clutter that Jon almost feels uncomfortable putting his things down anywhere, even temporarily. Glaringly unlived in. There are no magnets on the fridge, no pictures or shopping lists, no amusing overly-specific cooking utensils or silly decorations, not even a plant. Jon’s kitchens all looked like this for ages after each of his moves, but that’s Jon; this is Martin Blackwood.

The contents of the refrigerator consist of a bottle of sparkling water, a carton of milk, and a dozen ready-meals trays, varied and all equally blandly unappetising. Jon closes the fridge and goes to open the window.

It’s a lovely view over Pimlico and Chelsea. They’re on the eleventh floor, higher than all the surrounding buildings, able to see without being seen, and high enough that the people walking in the street below are only identical blurs of different colours, faceless and noiseless.

“No smoking inside.” Martin’s voice cracks like a whip.

Jon almost drops his packet of cigarettes. “Oh! Of course, sorry.” He shoves it back into the pocket of his coat, mortified.

Martin doesn’t even look up to glare at him, but somehow he makes the click of the electric kettle sound aggressive. He’s taken off his thin jumper and his hair is a little ruffled. Jon only sees the back of his head and the curls sticking up messily from the nape of his neck.

“I thought you’d gone to bed,” Jon mumbles, embarrassed.

“Laundry,” Martin retorts to the kettle. “No smoking inside when I’m asleep either.”

“Of course not. That’s not what I meant.”

“Put that away, then. Please.”

Jon drops the lighter back into his pocket as well, doesn’t know what to do with his hands without it to fidget with. Almost by process of elimination, he goes to get tea, too. He crosses the length of the kitchen to go stand next to Martin, and yet feels no closer to him.

Between the sleek and stylish kettle and the massive, gleaming and obviously never-used espresso machine, there’s a paper box of the most boring assortment of teas. He picks out a chamomile infusion. It takes him a moment to find the mugs, but he eventually locates them in an overhead cabinet — just a dozen of identical, featureless pristine white cups.

In the Archives kitchenette, the mugs range from a pastel pink with an unfortunately ugly kitten to a black one that proclaims World’s Worst Boss in Comic Sans font. There’s a thermosensitive one that lets the Cheshire Cat appear and disappear around his grin, and a handmade one Tim had brought back from a trip somewhere in Asia.

Jon pulls out two doppelgänger mugs and sets them on the counter. Martin clips out a thank you, but when the water is boiled, he only fills his own and leaves the room again. He doesn’t slam the door, just lets it click closed behind him.

Jon sits alone at the counter and drinks his bland infusion in his bland cup, and tries to warm up.

 


 

He eventually finds what he’s reasonably sure is the bathroom Martin allocated him, discovers that the next door leads to an empty bedroom. It’s large, furnished, yet empty and entirely impersonal, more soulless than any of the American motels he slept in last year. He settles in, which amounts to carrying his boxes in and leaving them in a corner and finally hanging his coat in the closet and taking off his shoes. There’s dusty but clean bedding on one of the shelves, and cobwebs in the corners that he has to swat off, but these could conceivably be natural.

He has no more intention to sleep than usual, but it has been a while, and today has been especially exhausting. The chamomile has warmed his chilly lungs and relaxed his muscles. He resigns himself to getting into the double bed with his laptop and reads some of his backlog of downloaded articles PDFs for an hour or so, until, finally, his eyes slowly fall shut.

 


 

He dreams, of course.

Jess Tyrell, sitting in front of him and crying as the café collapses on her, hands dragging her down through the cracked floor. Floyd Matharu back on Mikaele Salesa’s ship of horrors. Claude Jacobs forever running through infinite, twisting rows of brightly-lit shelves, Reda Diallo weeping endless streams of the only creatures that would ever love him, Willow Rivera now finding herself in her grave every single night. The others, the older ones, the people that came to the Institute for help, and the ones he tracked down, and the empty shells of the dreamers that got away from him, still smelling of pain and fear. Jon drinks in those scents like he does the sights, like he does the terrors themselves. His stomach turns but he eats it all up, the crawling insects and the blood, the twisting or crumbling realities and the gaze forever fixed on him.

And then there is the dark dream.

If this is someone else’s dream he still doesn’t know whose, because there doesn’t seem to be anyone here. It would almost be a respite, finally no one seeing him, finally no one spearing him through with looks of fear or hate or disgust or pity — but of course it cannot be. This dream is oppressive, stifling, smothering him. He cannot see, cannot hear, cannot Know anything, and it gnaws and eats at him, this unnatural state. He wants to thrash against it, scream, but he cannot move, even to open his mouth, cannot do a single thing, and this is the only knowledge granted to him: that he would be entirely helpless if something were to come out of the darkness for him.

Nothing does, this time either. But that doesn’t mean nothing ever will. Something could, and until then, he doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t know what it could do to him.

 


 

It’s from this dream that he wakes, gasping, choking, grasping for his throat, trying to cough out from his plugged throat something that isn’t there, hands shaking and eyelids batting frantically against the heavy darkness. He has a long minute of complete disoriented panic, half-awake in a pitch-black windowless room, the air unfamiliar, the walls closing in on him — and only when he finally remembers where he is does he start to slowly calm down.

He breathes, once he’s able. He is drenched in hot sweat, rapidly cooling in the cold air, and his clothes are sticking to his skin uncomfortably. Untangling himself from the sheets feels like a battle. He finds his phone on the bedside table. It is not even four in the morning, for what that’s worth, whatever that even represents anymore.

He considers having a shower; worries about waking Martin; has no idea whether Martin would hear it, where Martin’s room is. He gives up on the idea eventually, but gets up anyway, absolutely unable to stay in bed waiting for sleep. He is starting to get what Julia had meant, even though he’d never been scared of the dark, before.

He pads around the dimly-lit flat in his socks, as quietly as possible. The place is… strange. Besides the doors’ whole thing with being somehow only visible when you’re standing right in front of them, there is in fact quite a number of them off the corridor. Yet, because the rooms don’t connect to each other and the angles are all weird, at no point can Jon have a view of the entire flat nor any actual sense of its size, beyond ‘huge’, or its floor plan, beyond ‘almost certainly architecturally impossible’.

Jon stumbles on an empty hallway closet and another, empty bedroom, before he finally finds the lounge. It has odd, cubic dimensions, and Jon is unable to decide whether they make it feel spacious or cramped, but it is rather large, and a window takes up an entire wall of it, floor to ceiling, bathing the room in moon and city lights. Much better than his bedroom for both claustrophobia and nyctophobia. Jon leaves the light off.

This room, too, is tastefully furnished but undecorated and uncluttered. The large flat screen television is dusty, the cushions of the sofa show no dent. Jon walks past it and sits on the floor right next to the window instead.

If the view from the kitchen was nice, this is absolutely breath-taking. The river is a shivering dark ribbon reflecting the colours of the city, Chelsea Bridge shining in the near distance. Jon leans his forehead to the cold glass pane, presses his fingertips to it. At this time of night, the street below is empty but for the occasional cab, and the double-pane glass lets absolutely no sound through.

Of course, this is a seeing-and-being-unseen thing. But that’s just what he’s making of it. What this window is intended for, though, is to show him the distance — let him see the rest of the city while unable to touch it, to reach it, through the transparent barrier. Like the rest of the flat, it reeks of Lukas influence.

The view is still beautiful, though.

And if the window cuts him off from the rest of the world, it’s also protecting it from him.

Jon sits there on the floor, pressed up to the glass, watching the slight but constant shifting of the nearly-still view. He would happily do this until the sun rises and the light gets too bright, but in the end, the cold permeating his body gets too much and he has to get up. He goes back to his bedroom to grab his laptop and a blanket and bundles up on the sofa after all, and reads random pseudoscientific parapsychology nonsense until dawn.

 


 

He doesn’t hear anything all morning. When he warily gets up and attempts to look for Martin around the flat about nine o’clock, he notices the shoes and bag are gone. He heard nothing, no footsteps in the corridor, no running shower or working plumbing, no tinkering in the kitchen, not even the front door closing. He doesn’t think that’s how soundproofing normally works.

He makes a pot of strong tea and finds a single packet of old dry biscuits in a cabinet, and tries to stuff the emptiness in his ribcage with information. There’s a desk in his bedroom, but he opts for setting up in the kitchen. The window lets in just enough sunlight to not hurt his eyes and allow him to switch off the ceiling lamp.

Sitting in the semi-darkness with a teacup and a pile of files, he almost feels like home.

He really needs a smoke, though.

Especially since he only brought with him the box of dummy statements that came in over Halloween 2017.

 


 

The day crawls by sluggishly.

Jon didn’t take a tape recorder along, and none pops up to take witness of the clearly fake stories. He tries reading one out loud, to… interesting effects. Not quite nausea, but he can definitely tell this does nothing to truly nourish him, while superficially filling him up. Perhaps it can be likened to drinking water when hungry, or the equivalent of diet pills.

So it seems like a good idea to fight the twisting churning hunger, at first. However, this leaves him with no real follow-up work to speak of. Without access to the outside, the Internet, or assistants, there isn’t much he can do in terms of additional research even into the ones that seem like they might be true stories with mundane explanations — and then, there are the ones that are simply complete hoaxes with no facts to verify at all. He’s left to spend the rest of the day annotating and scanning through the pile, squeezing whatever angles he can think of to absurd lengths just to keep himself occupied, and he has to admit to himself that he’ll need to find something else eventually.

At the end of the afternoon, he realises he once again skipped lunch. He clears up the kitchen and moves back to the living room, vaguely planning to wait for Martin’s return to have dinner together.

He never hears Martin come back. No lights are turned on, nothing moves. But he eventually gets up from the sofa, a few hours after midnight, to go and force himself to eat something, and on his way to the kitchen, down the hall, he spots the dark shape of Martin’s bag and shoes lying on the floor next to the front door.

So it looks like that’s how this is going to go.

It’s fine. Jon has a childhood’s worth of experience being locked inside a house in a guardian’s absence. Though he can’t sneak out through a window this time.

Jon pops one of the ready meals into the microwave, and while it cooks, looks around the lounge for something to write a note with. In the end, he scrawls in fountain pen on the back of a sorry excuse for a statement he’s finished with:

1) Which meals do you want to keep for you to eat?

2) What’s the Wi-Fi password?

He could know that last one, probably — such a trivial detail, easy — but the entire point of this is kind of for him to stop doing that.

He still doesn’t know which door leads to Martin’s room, either, and doesn’t think it would be a good idea to go looking at three in the morning, so he leaves the note on the kitchen table instead.

He eats his dinner, pretends to work another couple hours, and goes to bed when the sunrise makes the living room too bright.

 


 

When he next makes his way to the kitchen, the note says, in a particularly messy scribble that he probably wouldn’t have been able to decipher without years of experience with Martin’s handwriting:

1- don’t eat the (here Jon assumes it’s meant to say pad thai, though he can’t even figure out how Martin spelled it)

2- Lukas Family Flat #48 + spidersareavitalpartoftheecosystem

3- no smoking

Jon tries to squash his guilty annoyance at the last one. It’s easy for Martin to say when he’s not giving Jon any option to go outside. He’s having a hard enough time, he thinks he can be spared that particular little faux pas.

He hasn’t received any email, barring the usual surreal spam. No texts since he moved in, either, which is only slightly more of a surprise — but makes sense. He can’t fault his team for not having anything to say to him, given the circumstances.

He works. He eats the lasagne late at night. He goes to bed in the morning, doesn’t even sleep.

 


 

He sticks to the routine of moving from the kitchen during daylight to the living room in the evening, albeit he never sees Martin use the kitchen anyway. The trays do disappear one by one, though, and the dishwasher occasionally goes through cycles when he’s not looking.

Sometimes, when he notices that it seems like the appropriate time of day, Jon leaves a mug of tea (strong in the morning, decaf or herbal in the evening) on the kitchen table; finds it cold and untouched hours later, so he eventually stops doing it.

He never sees Martin.

On Thursday, or possibly Friday, he falls asleep in the sofa, and is woken up by rising sunlight. He doesn’t think it’s Saturday already, though he couldn’t tell, since the date and time on both his laptop and phone are now blurred out and unreadable. At any rate, Martin is not any more present.

The sun sets and rises again, Jon moves from room to cold room, Martin’s shoes appear and disappear and the dishwasher cycles invisibly and the food depletes but never runs out and Jon is losing track. There is no one, no sound. The silence is what is getting to him worst, Jon thinks; it’s a blanket, muffling and stifling, swallowing. There’s nothing natural about it. Both Jon’s laptop and phone have developed an odd hardware issue that makes him unable to turn up the volume. He puts the kettle on a dozen times a day and forgets to come make his tea because he doesn’t hear it boil and click off from the next room over even with both doors wide open. He knows Martin comes and goes, there are long periods during which Martin should by all rights be in the flat and Jon never even hears him.

This is even worse than not knowing where Martin is, or knowing he’s far away. Knowing he’s here and out of reach, out of sight, unwilling to let Jon see him, talk to him, touch him. Martin’s absence is not just a bleeding wound, it’s the knife.

He forgets to sleep, and when it finally occurs to him again, can’t find rest, can’t shut down his exhausted brain. Forgets to eat, and stops feeling the need to.

And all the while Jon’s skin itches with need. His eyes are always dry and his brain refuses to ever stop, constantly craving stimulus, fuel.

Jon reads, he doesn’t sleep, he dreams, he reads, he reads he reads he reads, he’s still hungry, he doesn’t see anything, anyone, doesn’t hear anyone. He has no idea if anyone else even lives in the rest of the building. There’s no reaction when he bangs on the door for an hour screaming to be let out. Not that that means anything. Perhaps there are other people hearing him, and they just don’t want to help him, don’t care. There’s a buzzing in his ears which he thinks his brain might be making up for the sake of having some white noise to ground itself with. He remembers the statement of the first astronaut of the SS Daedalus, Carter Chilcott, who started hallucinating a few weeks into that experiment. He reads. He reads. He reads.

The fake statements are not filling — on the contrary, they exacerbate both the hunger and the blasted headache, but he keeps reading because it’s at least something to feed his searing brain and the Eye that demands something something something, even if it’s five statements about a dead little girl in mirrors in just the first pile. Mental pictures. Imagination. Someone’s story, that scared them and their friends and a few strangers on the Internet. Lies, and not even good ones, but a tiny bit of power still.

Really not good ones, and sometimes he catches himself laughing senselessly at the ludicrousness of them. He tries to imagine Gertrude first processing them, having to classify them. Tim would have had a field day reading so many of these aloud and acting them out. Sasha, too, maybe, he thinks so, not that he could ever know for sure if that was her personality or the one a creature made up after killing her.

But Tim and Sasha are dead, and Martin is not here, and no one wants to be around Jon right now and there’s no one to talk to. Martin doesn’t want to talk to him, Daisy and Basira and Melanie don’t want to talk to him, Georgie doesn’t want to talk to him ever again, Tim stopped wanting to talk to him years ago, months before he died. Sasha never got to that point, he thinks, because she didn’t have the time to before he let her die, not that he would know because he doesn’t truly remember her. Barely knew her. Barely knew any of them. They never really shared anything, anyway, besides being stuck in a mouldy basement surrounded with ghost stories. But just because you’re stuck with someone doesn’t mean you like them or care about them.

Don’t you have friends to go have fun with,’ his grandmother used to ask out of desperation on Saturday mornings, faced with the prospect of having little Jonathan around all week-end, and he remembers explaining to her at six or seven years of age: being in the same room as twenty other kids every day didn’t make any of them his friends. She did not argue, perhaps because living in the same house as each other never made them close, and thinking back on his life since, he cannot conjure one instance of this axiom being disproven. At the activities she enrolled him in, in high school, in uni, even at the parties Georgie dragged him to, Jon was just… there, in the same room as others but never with them, never wanting to talk, never someone people wanted to talk to, never connecting, already forsaken the moment he walked in.

Jon sits alone in the empty flat and reads the lies and jokes and conspiracy theories that people had to make up just so they could feel interesting and listened to, because there’s nothing else to do. There’s nothing else he can do.

 


 

On — who knows what day, but early in the morning judging by the sunlight (assuming the sun can still be trusted), he sets off the fire alarm.

Not deliberately, of course. He’s chasing a ‘lead’ through five different social media accounts, which he’s never been good at in the first place even without websites acting up weirdly (all dates blurry and unreadable, large sections missing in the middle of blocks of text, all links broken), and of course he doesn’t have anyone to help him or do it for him. Melanie has experience in social media and networking, but she’s not available right now, and his previous experts in computer stuff and human connections are rather dead. So Jon is on his own, and the Wi-Fi is being slow, for no goddamn reason considering he doesn’t believe there’s anyone else in the entire building to use up the bandwidth, so he lights a cigarette to keep his nerves in check, without thinking to move to a window.

He almost falls off the sofa and absolutely spills his tea all over his laptop when the fire alarm starts screeching through the thick silence. It drills through his fuzzy sleep-deprived brain and gives him an instant headache on top of the one that has been thundering for a week. He swears, with his voice scratchy from unuse, quietly at first, then louder as he looks for the bloody thing. Of course this is the one thing that can be heard from every single room in the flat, with no difference in volume to help him track it down.

He combs over the lounge, then the kitchen, finds nothing. No dice in the hallway either. Out of desperation, hands screwed to his ears and his brain thrumming in time with the shrill trills, he checks his bedroom, his bathroom. The spare bedroom. The closets. He paces back and forth in front of the last few doors, not daring to look into Martin’s room with no permission, and elects to go over the rest of the flat again before trying that.

He has done so twice when he finally locates the damn thing, in a far corner of the kitchen, on the ceiling, far from any climbable furniture and much too high to reach while standing on a chair. Jon stares at it in consternation. He hasn’t seen a ladder anywhere.

It’s been at least half an hour, and there’s still been no reaction from the non-existent neighbours. No pounding at the door, no doorbell, no phone call. Clutching his ears as the alarm starts another cycle of howling, Jon has the chilling, shattering realisation that no one is coming.

His laptop still won’t play any music. He goes to stand in the shower to drown it out with the sound of the running water, which works more or less, but he’s not going to stay there all day.

Another half an hour in and the alarm still going strong even though all smoke has dissipated, he swears one final time and, spitefully, lights another cigarette.

 


 

No one comes, no firemen nor any neighbours.

The alarm suddenly goes dead in the evening, mid-screech, leaving behind a silence almost as deafening. There has been no warning. Jon staggers into the hallway and finds Martin’s abandoned shoes next to the front door. There isn’t even any note scolding him for the smoking. No slam of the door, nothing, not a single acknowledgement that Jon exists in here.

Silence falls back over the flat like a coat of snow overnight and Jon almost considers activating the alarm again the next day, just to rend it apart. He only barely manages to make himself walk to the kitchen window before lighting his cigarette.

 


 

And then one night the silence is broken.

“I have been ringing that doorbell all evening.”

Melanie’s voice booms and bounces off the walls of the corridor and all the way into the kitchen, in a way Jon has never heard any sound do in this place, not even the fire alarm.

Martin’s voice, then, slightly lower volume but obviously irritated and short on patience: “Sorry I didn’t know you’d be coming.”

“That is the point of a doorbell!”

“Yeah, well, next time you want to contact us, warn ahead, ‘cause the flat cuts off any communication.”

“That is so creepy.”

“It’s a Lukas flat, what did you expect? Wasn’t that the point, to keep him in here?”

“I guess, but whoah, brutal.”

Martin walks in just in time for Jon to see him shrug. “Just, y’know, isolation.”

Behind him, Melanie doesn’t look impressed. “Right. Hey, Jon.”

They move into the dimly-lit kitchen, people, moving, fast and unpredictable, independent from Jon’s motions or thoughts. Jon’s head is aching, just from hearing their voices, just from hearing people’s voices — a relief, but a shock, like drinking freezing water too fast on a hot day, and he instinctively takes off his prescription glasses just to reduce some of the sudden influx of sensory stimulation. It takes him a few seconds to process that Melanie has spoken to him, to remember to respond.

“Hey,” he manages. His tongue is sluggish and thick, like paper-mâché in his mouth.

She leans, standing, against the table and crosses her arms on it, between his forgotten morning mug and a pile of particularly awful statements, and looks him up and down. “How you holding up?”

He is abruptly aware that he hasn’t washed or slept in a couple days at least. His hand comes up to scratch at his stubble, self-consciously, though it’s — actually not as bad as he expected. “Not, uhm.” He drags his hand through his hair, does regret that instantly. “Not great?”

“Yeaaah, that’s… yeah, looks like it.”

His brain reacts to that on autopilot with an instinctive, “Thank you, Melanie,” and she flashes him a smirk, so perhaps not all is lost.

She shifts her arms to rest her chin in one hand. “Have you sneaked out the window and attacked anyone for their story?”

“Not that I recall.”

“Then that’s a good start at least.”

Behind her, the tap is turned on, and the sound is icy. “It’s the eleventh floor,” Martin grumbles. “Unless you’re going to tell me he can fly now.” He starts filling the kettle.

Belatedly, Jon babbles, “Ah, sorry, I’ll clear out,” and starts frantically, clumsily tidying up his stuff. His hands feel too big, like he’s taking up too much space in this room now that there are people in it.

“This place is amazing,” Melanie remarks, tilting her head back to look around the huge kitchen. “Like, major heebie-jeebies, but can’t say the sugar daddy isn’t treating you well.”

Half of the pile of statements slip from Jon’s fingers and scatter to the floor. He can’t make himself react, pick them up, can’t say a word, not a single thing, not an embarrassed mumble of apology. His mind is perfectly blank, full of cloud, of cold fog. His heart has stopped, encased in a block of ice.

“What?” Martin groans, looking up from the kettle to make a disgusted face at her. “No, that’s not — no, I’m not shagging Peter, he’s my uncle or something.”

The rest of the pile falls on Jon’s feet.

Melanie thankfully voices his fragmented thoughts with a resounding: “What?!”

Jon winces, feels the echoes rattle through his brain.

Martin, though, is still focused on making the tea, like he didn’t just drop a bombshell, like this is nothing major or at all consequential. “I think it was first cousin once removed? Maybe twice. I didn’t quite get the family tree, but apparently he’s a cousin of my father or something. I think he’d have given me the flat anyway, though, he complained that I wasn’t available enough with the commute.”

“Wasn’t your commute like twenty minutes?” Melanie asks, surreally, as if that’s the highest-priority concern here.

Martin snorts. “Yeah.”

“You’re a Lukas?” Jon hears himself say, stupidly, struck entirely dumb.

Martin meets his eyes.

He lowers his eyelids and takes off his glasses, finally, and opens them again. His gaze is almost uncomfortable to hold — it’s been so long since Jon’s seen anyone’s eyes, so long since he’s seen Martin, and this is the first time, Jon thinks, that they look at each other eye to eye like this, without either of them having any lenses on. Martin’s eyes are pale and foggy, and God. Jon has seen Peter Lukas’s. He can’t even deny the family resemblance.

“Hear I’m a spitting picture of my dad at my age,” Martin says, calm, matter-of-fact, because, Jon realises, he has known this for a long time. He puts his glasses back on and adds, “Anyway, to what do we owe the visit, Melanie?” and the ‘we’ is ridiculous, stabs an icicle into Jon’s chest.

“Oh! Uh, checking in on Jon, mostly. We’ve been trying to let him know that Daisy’s going to be out this week, so if he’s feeling up to it, he can come by the Institute again.”

“Oh,” Jon stammers. Right. There is a world outside of this place. Other people. He used to be doing other things. “Yes, that might.” He breathes in. “That would do me good. Perhaps tomorrow.”

“Sure.”

“I’ll walk him, I guess,” Martin says, the way one would talk about the dog their child got as a present. “I need to drop by too. Was that all?” He reaches into the cabinet for mugs and pulls out only one.

Melanie purses her lips. “Mhm. Guess I’ll be on my way, Mr. Lukas Jr.”

He rolls his eyes, without looking at her. “‘Blackwood’ is still my legal name. Was my mum’s.”

“Right, Mr. Peter-Lukas’s-favourite-nephew.”

“That’s really not hard.”

“Actually, I…” Jon finally manages to squat down and gather his files and himself, though his hands are still shaking. “I’ll go down with you, Melanie, I… I need a smoke.” Martin snorts loudly.

“Sure,” she says. “I’ve got the equipment to handle you.” She wiggles her eyebrows threateningly and he smothers the instant morbid curiosity to find out what equipment that is exactly.

“Just leave all the doors open so he can come back up,” Martin sighs, pouring boiling water into his mug. “I don’t want to let him touch the key card if I can help it.”

In the doorway, one foot in the corridor, Jon lets out a nervous chuckle. “I don’t think cloning is amongst my abilities, either.”

Martin stares at him coolly over the rim of his steaming cup of tea. “Yeah, and we really know everything about monsters.”

 


 

Melanie sits upwind on a bench by the river while Jon paces back and forth on the pavement. Smoking calms him down a little, but it doesn’t quite help.

“Wild, hm?” Melanie offers at one point.

Hm,” Jon says. “Yes. No.”

“No?”

“Not that surprising from someone who’s…” He groans. “Who was hired at the Institute under suspicious circumstances.” Someone with a history of secrets and dissimulation. Jon snorts to himself, dejectedly, upon remembering how paranoid he’d been over Martin’s professional background two years ago. He’d been very wrong, but not that far-off either. Martin has always been a liar and a good one, Jon knew this, why should he be shocked that Martin never told him he came from a family of monsters? “I just wish,” he sighs, and cuts himself off to take a deep drag. “I wish just one person I knew didn’t turn out to have been tied up in this from the start.” As he speaks, grey smoke filters through his lips in clumps, and there’s something wrong when something he knows to be toxic and deadly feels so reassuring and harmless, in comparison with another kind of smog he’s been breathing.

Melanie lets out a bitter chuckle. “That’s a bit much to ask at this point, I think.”

Jon grunts, and turns around and walks back down.

She lets him simmer for a few minutes before piping up: “Rough week, huh?”

He’s about to scoff hysterically that it’s been a rough month at least when a dark suspicion occurs to him. He checks his phone, which he hasn’t charged since he moved in, and which innocently blinks at him the date of 16th July. A Monday.

“Yes,” he says slowly, his voice hoarse. He scratches his stubble again, mechanically. It’s definitely younger than a fortnight. “A long week.”

“I’m saying you look like hell,” Melanie tells him bluntly. “Make some effort, yeah?”

He laughs without humour. “What, to look presentable? I thought we agreed that I’m a monster, Melanie.”

“Yeah, and believe me, seeing you in my nightmares was hard enough without you looking like this,” accompanied with a jerk of her chin towards his general stance.

She’s… not wrong, he supposes.

“Have you showered at all since the last time I saw you?” She wrinkles her nose. “We’re all working to keep you afloat like a normal human being, least you can do is look like it, dude. At least not freak out your dream victims more than necessary.”

His cheeks burn. It stings, but it’s almost a relief, to have people around again and their opinions to care about.

Jesus, and it’s only been a week.

 


 

When he walks back up and locks himself back in, Martin has disappeared and the kettle water has gone cold.

 

Chapter Text

Jon doesn’t sleep much that night, but he manages to do so before five o’clock, and then when he wakes up he forces himself to go on with the morning like a normal person.

He has had a few showers over his stay, just standing under the warm water to relax, but for once he actually bothers to look through the products the bathroom is stocked with. The bottles are bland, reading plainly ‘Soap’ or ‘Cream’. One of them even says simply: ‘Product’. Jon doesn’t use that one, but he washes his hair with a ‘Shampoo’ that has exactly and absolutely no colour or scent at all, then he faces the ordeal of shaving around the gashes in his face. It is not an amusing affair, but it is thankfully getting easier already, since they aren’t as sensitive as they used to be. He peers at them in the steamed mirror, before and after. They appear to be scarring well, if faster than seems normal, and the skin is turning a pitch-black colour that is definitely supernatural. The fragrance-less ‘Aftershave’ doesn’t even sting.

He digs through his closet for the fresh clothes he finally unpacked who-knows-how-many-days-ago-in-reality, manages an almost decent breakfast of old toast bread and raspberry jam. He pours a second mug of tea along with his own, but he still can’t find Martin until the man pops up in the kitchen around eight, absent-mindedly asking, “Ready to go?”, like this has been a normal daily routine part of their cohabitation and it doesn’t make Jon’s head spin to hear his voice.

The second he crosses the front door, Jon’s mind clears. They step out onto the pavement and he breathes fresh summer morning air, blinks behind his sunglasses, and the fog behind his eyes dissipates. There are people, around, walking in the street, with distinct faces, each of them their own individual person, there are voices, motion, colours, eyes. A young woman runs by, shoving past Martin without appearing to notice, late for work again, she’ll make something up about having to look after her sick grandfather even though she just stayed up late playing video games —

Jon almost stumbles.

With a sigh, Martin readjusts his messenger bag that the woman jostled off his shoulder.

They walk in silence to the Institute, and Martin all but hands him off to Melanie at the doorway to the Archives, then immediately turns around and walks back up without a word. Here, though, Jon can feel him, doesn’t need to make any effort at all for a little of his awareness to follow Martin through the corridors and up the old creaking stairs to the library. Jon wills himself to stop there, but it eases a discomfort he hadn’t realised he was enduring, soothes the anxiety of not knowing.

He feels better out of the Lukas flat, obviously, but he also just feels better at the Institute than anywhere else. Still weak and itching, but back to being real and solid again, head and vision clear, sharper. Fully himself. This is where he belongs, this is the only place he’s meant to be.

He steps inside his office and breathes in.

In the week he’s been gone, Basira has taken over an entire corner of the room and set up a veritable nest of cushions there, surrounded with three boxes of statements and some binders which she hurries to close when Jon and Melanie walk in.

“Oh, you’re here,” she says, like she’s the owner of the place. “Looking like you saw a ghost.”

Jon scowls. “Did not see a ghost. For a week. In an evil flat,” he groans. “Happy?”

While he replaces his sunglasses with his regular prescription ones, she frowns back at him in the semi-darkness of the office. “What am I supposed to be happy about here, exactly?”

Jon folds his sunglasses with a snap and, with that hand, makes a large gesture meant to encompass the Institute, the Eye, and his general being himself. “Punishment effective, lesson learned, all that.”

She sits up, with a heavy gravity that is only partly due to her wounds. Something righteous about it. “Jon,” she starts, with an undertone like warning in her voice, “it’s not a punishment.”

Jon snorts. “No? Could have fooled me.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m really sorry we didn’t get you a five-star hotel to stay at so Daisy doesn’t tear you a new one.”

“That’s not —”

“Hi, room service, can you send someone up? Let me take a look at the menu, oh, I know, send me a waiter with Corruption trauma today!”

“That is not what I mean and you know it,” Jon cuts in sharply.

“What do you mean, then, Jon?” She crosses her arms, defiant. “Should we call up your victims, ask them how they feel about the unfathomable horror of being forced to stay for a week in a fancy Chelsea flat?”

“Uh, actually, Basira,” Melanie interjects cautiously. “It’s not… it’s not a normal place. I was only in there for five minutes, and it was…” She rubs her arm, as if subconsciously trying to warm herself up from the memory, nervous and uncomfortable. “Bad,” she concludes with a grimace.

Jon huffs and crosses his arms as well, in vindication, though Melanie doesn’t look at him and he has no illusion on her intervention being just for his personal credit.

Basira goes silent for a bit. Eventually, she asks: “Bad how?”

“Trapped, cut off, cold, the works.” Melanie gestures towards the ceiling. “I… Okay, it’s a little fuzzy, but do you remember when Lukas first moved in and we all lost it for a month? That, but… more. As if it’s all concentrated in a smaller space.”

Jon watches as the two of them look at each other and an entire conversation goes through again, that is this time not at all about Jon despite being over the minutiae of his quarantine. Finally, Basira sighs and deflates a bit, the tension leaving her shoulders and a slight wince making its way to her face as she sits back down in her nest of pillows. “Well. We’re all trapped somewhere awful, do like everyone else and deal with it,” she says, grudgingly. “But no, I’m not sadistically happy that the place is messing you up extra or whatever, that wasn’t the plan.”

She doesn’t say sorry. Jon has a fleeting moment of déjà-vu. He puts down his bag, unsure how to react if pissed-off resentment is not warranted after all. “I… thought punishment was part of your collective decision.”

“Punishment not gonna work on a masochist,” Melanie mutters, to which he splutters but finds he can say nothing in protest.

Basira snorts. “I mean, Martin lives there, I didn’t think it’d be a problem. Perks of the new job, I guess?”

The way she says it makes Jon glance at Melanie, who does not look at him. Her face is perfectly blank and neutral, and she doesn’t add anything to Basira’s comment.

So she hasn’t told Basira about Martin’s parentage.

Somehow, Jon can’t bring himself to tell her either. Putting it into words would mean facing it, and he can still barely process it himself, can’t help but wait for the punchline and the laughing admission that this is all a joke so he doesn’t have to deal with it being real. Although, he supposes, that does explain why Basira isn’t immediately pulling him out of the influence of a Lukas on sheer principle.

“Look,” Basira resumes, stern again, “I don’t care how you feel about it, just that you stop. So the priority was to get you stashed away somewhere securely. Still is. That’s all.”

“It’s not like there were all that many alternatives,” Melanie concurs. “I don’t think you’d have liked the other options any more than this one.”

“Which were?” Jon asks before he can stop himself.

“The coffin, for one.”

His breath catches mid-inhale, just entirely escapes him, no oxygen left in the stale air of the office.

Basira shrugs. “It worked for Daisy.”

“Yeah, but not on Jon, apparently?” Melanie reminds.

“Maybe he just didn’t stay in it long enough,” Basira suggests, and her expression betrays nothing but she has to be drawing some sort of dark satisfaction out of saying this while Jon is struggling for oxygen.

But you did get out of it once before, so maybe not that secure. And if being in there was what made you hungry afterwards, then that makes the idea a bit, uh, counterproductive.” Melanie peers into Jon’s face, as if waiting for his reaction, but he’s just focusing on gathering his breath again, coming back little by little. “Also, Daisy said you might prefer… just dying.”

“Yeah, she wasn’t a fan,” Basira concedes with a sigh. “Really insisted on finding another option for you than the Buried. So in the end, Martin volunteered to take you in.”

His voice very small and weak, Jon repeats: “He volunteered?” None of this makes any sense.

“Yeah.”

“That…” He exhales shakily, tries to will his heart rate down. His lungs are damp and his tongue shrouded in dusty dirt but he’s fine, he’s fine, he’s out, there’s nothing compressing his chest, nothing at all preventing him from breathing. “He didn’t,” he manages, “seem exactly enthused about it.”

“He did mention it would be, uhm... ‘not fun for either of’ you, something like that. No one here’s having a good time, Jon,” Basira hammers in. “But in the meantime, it’s been a week and as far as I hear you haven’t jumped anyone. So, in my books, this is working.”

“It’s been just a week,” he grumbles. “I haven’t — I hadn’t been taking stories every other day.”

“And you’ve been so forthcoming on your activities so I’m totally going to trust you on that,” she snaps back. “Look, if you’ve got better options in mind, I’m all ears.” She spreads her hands.

Jon opens his mouth, ends up just letting out another sigh. A headache is building again. “Not really, no. Still, it would have been nice to know this much, at least.”

“We kind of assumed Martin would tell you the details,” Melanie allows.

He snorts. “Martin and I aren’t really talking.”

“Hmm.” Basira squints at him. “Sucks. You’ll be okay to go back?”

He makes himself inhale and exhale deeply, expel some of the wound-up frustration. “I’ll have to, won’t I?” he retorts, but he’s not that harsh about it anymore. “If I don’t want to go back into the coffin instead.”

“It’s not a threat, Jon.”

The coffin is currently in one of the furthest rooms of Artefact Storage, sealed up and covered in bright yellow hazard warning tape. The flat is… the flat is what it is, but at least he can breathe there.

After a silence, Basira asks, gingerly: “Is it hurting you?”

He looks up, rubbing his temples. “Hm?”

“Staying there. Is it hurting you, is it something you’ll need to heal from?” At his blinking, she elaborates: “From the dates you gave us, it looks like there’s a pattern. Seems like each time you got hurt or exerted yourself, you went out and assaulted someone right after. As if to recover.”

Ah. “That… makes sense.”

“Oh, does it,” Melanie says.

“I don’t… I wasn’t thinking about it, it was instinctive, it just… happened.” He needs to close his eyes for a bit. “But yes, it makes me feel better, so that would… that would make sense.” He breathes deeply again, rubs his forehead, facing an unpleasant realisation. “I suppose my last… attempt… was shortly after Lukas did something to me.”

When he opens his eyes, Melanie is chewing her lip unhappily, but Basira’s face hasn’t shifted. “So?” she says. “Does the flat make you hungry?”

Jon examines that question, studies the craving gnawing at his gut. “No, I don’t think so. It’s affecting me, and I am… itching now, but just because I haven’t read anything in a while.” He sighs and has to admit: “I need to change that strategy. I tried binging on only fake statements, but… they don’t really do anything for me. I don’t think I can forego reading real ones.”

Basira and Melanie exchange another glance, as if to check in with each other, but they don’t seem alarmed or surprised. “That’s fine,” Basira rules. “No one new hurt.”

“I…” Jon starts, interrupts himself to lick his lips. “I want to read one.”

“Mmm.” Basira taps her chin with a scrap of cardstock. “I was thinking of putting you on a schedule for that, then. I’m going to say that you can do that today, and then every other week. Then we try to space it out. Should be fine?”

“That’s about the pace at which I start feeling the need for it, yes. I’ve never really scheduled them, just… grab one whenever I feel like it,” he confesses.

“Aaand self-discipline is precisely what we need to work on.”

“‘We’?” he points out sarcastically.

“‘You’,” Basira acknowledges without batting an eyelash. “All right, then you go do your thing next door right now, and then you come back in here. You’re sticking with me today.”

A wonderful day in perspective.

With just a nod of easy authority, Basira dismisses them both from Jon’s office, which is certainly a new feeling. Melanie drifts off to the sofa while Jon heads for the second office. As he walks along a row of shelves, he reaches into a box at random and grabs a statement that he knows is about the Dark before he’s even pulled it out entirely. That’s not going to be pleasant either.

He reads it anyway.

The tape recorder on the desk whirrs on like a purring cat, and turns itself off when he’s done, sated.

 


 

At least, it means that returning to Basira and the half-lit room is a soothing relief.

When Jon asks, Basira says that Elias hasn’t reacted nor made his presence known in the week of Jon’s absence, which is fine by them, though they are apparently ‘ready to welcome him’ if he should decide to pay them a visit. Jon doesn’t ask for details, tries not to think about blood in the Archives again. Tries not to think about Elias’s suspicious silence too much.

As for Daisy, she’s out into the city this week, searching for one of his victims.

“Is she…” He hesitates, interrupts his attempt to clean up his desk from the clutter that has accumulated on it again in his absence. “... okay?”

Without looking up from her binder, Basira deadpans: “What, you don’t know that?”

“Basira,” he groans. “No, I’m trying not to know, like you asked me to. Is Daisy okay?”

She allows a pause, but when she speaks again, her voice is a little softer, if still bitter. “She looks all right. Her legs have been more or less fine again. She sounded a bit too insistent on going outside alone, I’m… not happy about this, but… she didn’t want to hear any of it.” She sighs, annoyance back into her tone. “‘S not like I could stop her anyway.”

“I’m sorry,” Jon whispers.

“Yeah, well, you should be,” she snaps. Jon doesn’t deny that, and there’s a silence, again, as she collects herself, acknowledges quietly: “She’s not the one who’s nearly fallen off the wagon. It’s not monsters she’s going after, so. She should be fine.”

Basira used to want this, Jon remembers. He wonders how she feels, now that she’s the one who’s too weak to follow her partner outside, and when Daisy taking matters into her own hands is a cause for concern. Basira, too, is trapped; they’re right. Jon had forgotten, over the last week, that he wasn’t the only one of them in that position.

A little louder, as if to erase the moment of vulnerability, Basira resumes: “So, if you’re good now, I’m thinking you can get started on victims-managing today, too.”

He peers down at her over the mess of his desk. “I thought I wasn’t allowed to approach them.”

“You’re not. But is there anyone you could reach out to without, y’know, giving them a panic attack?”

He puts down a stack of notes.

The thing is, it’s not going to help. Especially not from him, but in general: there’s nothing to be done for the people who have been hurt, and he doesn’t need knowledge from the Beholding to know this much. Whatever Basira or Daisy can come up with, none of it will be any use. There is no helping, no getting away.

Basira does not look like she’ll accept that, though.

He breathes in, breathes out. “I… suppose… I owe Georgie apologies, in general.”

“A bunch of them, from what I gathered, yeah.” She gestures towards his laptop bag. “Sounds like you’re writing an e-mail today, Jonathan Sims, you utter bastard.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Basira. You were there the last time I saw her, she… didn’t exactly seem keen to see me again.”

“Yeah, hence why perhaps you should have tried not to make her see you in her nightmares every night. Write her and ask.” She turns back to her secret binder decisively. “You’re good at that, after all.”

He isn’t. He really isn’t.

There are… so many things he has to tell Georgie, really, and very little he wants to. And above all, probably a lot more he should listen to her say. He spends nearly two hours on a draft, trying to express that if there is anything he can do to help her, he wants to do it (even though he is rather certain that there is nothing that can be done besides him dying) and if she wants to never hear from him again, then he will ensure that (except he’s already infringing on that with this e-mail). Feelings are complicated, trying to express them accurately is usually a waste of time at best, communication is hard, and he’s never been even passable at any of it. She used to laugh about that all the time — not at him, not mocking, she just laughed and called his pathetic but earnest attempts cute, then she would run her hands in his hair and kiss him and take him through it, patiently.

He’d never deserved her, really.

He deletes an entire paragraph again, writes I hope the Admiral is doing okay, then trashes the entire draft, slams his laptop shut and submits to the need to go walk it off in the main room.

“Jon!” Basira calls after him, exasperated. First day back already a success.

“I need to move,” he justifies, fumbling with his sunglasses. “And a smoke.”

“Well that’s a shame. Get back in here.”

Sprawled on the stripped-down sofa with one of her library books, Melanie leans her head back over the armrest and looks at him upside down. “I was about to go out to do the groceries, if you want to come with,” she offers, dubitative.

He pauses and stares at her.

“Well. I…” He hesitates. “I could use some fresh air, yes.”

“Melanie, no,” Basira’s voice protests from the office. “What if he goes hungry monster in the street? You’re not trained to neutralise him.”

Jon holds back on mentioning that he’s fairly sure Melanie’s tiny skinny hundred-and-a-handful pounds would have no issue bringing him down.

“I told you, I’m all set. I took him outside yesterday and it went fine.”

There’s muffled cursing and shuffling, and then Basira shows in the doorframe, scowling like a figure of divine retribution. “You what?

“Just for a few minutes.” Melanie shrugs. “Basira, it’s okay. I won’t jump him, and I won’t let him jump someone. And we’re out of ginger cookies.”

Basira drags her hand over her face, mumbles something clearly unhappy, but eventually just says: “Toast bread, too.”

“Got it.” Melanie pulls herself to her feet like a ragdoll, as if she’s been doing anything today more tiring than lying on a couch.

 


 

It does help, the fresh air, the rush of nicotine, and the following Melanie’s brisk pace. She makes a little grimace the one time his smoke gets in her face, but says nothing, simply keeps walking with her hands in her pockets, her tote bags jangling from her shoulder.

He licks his lips, nervously, guiltily. “I… Thank you, Melanie.”

She doesn’t turn. “Hmm?”

“For offering to step out.”

“Oh, no, I really was going to at some point anyway. Basira gets kind of cranky when she’s worried.”

“But you didn’t have to let me come along.”

“Well,” Melanie says, still in that reasonable, bored tone, “we’ve got to pass you around between us like a hot potato, right? It’s only fair I chip in since I voted to try and keep you alive.”

He stops dead in his tracks. She notices after a few paces, stops as well and turns around, wary.

“You — what?” he stammers.

She frowns and walks back to stand by him. Her eyes are dark.

“What?” He remembers her exact words as she snarled that he should have been dead, how her hands twitched on her knives, when he came back from the hospital — and later, how she told him that it wasn’t just ghosts or possession, that the anger had always been her own, how she volunteered to chop off his finger if he couldn’t do it. “You voted for…?”

“Yeah?”

“But I…”

“Jon, come on!” she groans. “Yes, I’d rather avoid you dying if possible! I’m not a — urhg!” She swats the side of his head. She has to go up on tiptoes to do so, but he’s so stunned he doesn’t think to evade it. “Jesus, now I’m going to reconsider caring about you, you asshole.”

“You…” He stares at her some more, through his dark lenses, takes in her small shape thrumming with contained anger and annoyance in the middle of the street, and he tries to rearrange his understanding of Melanie King and her opinion of him into something more generous.

Don’t make me say it again,” she warns, and now he can identify the embarrassment under the protective veneer of aggression.

He considers possible replies for a few seconds — the morbid devouring curiosity to ask what the others voted — and eventually settles for the most prudent: “Okay.”

“Good. Now get going and let’s get some actual, healthy, non-trauma-fuelled food, so you don’t drop dead from starvation and I won’t have worked my ass off for nothing.”

“I have been eating normal food.”

“You don’t look like it.”

 


 

The rest of the walk is choked in hotly flustered silence. Only once they reach their destination does Melanie clear her throat and complain, in a perfectly deadpan tone: “Can’t believe I’m doing groceries with my boss who is wearing sunglasses in Tesco.”

Jon recognises and gratefully takes the awkward offer to move on. “You can wear yours too,” he suggests.

“Absolutely not, I wouldn’t want people to know I’m with you.” Except she is walking right next to him and making no effort to conceal their conversation.

They’ve been inside for a minute when Jon’s phone finally buzzes, and he reads the text with consternation.

Sent 11:14am
Going to the supermarket. Anything you want?

Martin, 11:33am
no

He shows it to Melanie. “Is that liberty to buy anything, or discouragement?”

Her face, somehow, carries across the emotion of an intense lack of caring. It’s rather impressive. “Just get his usual?”

“I can’t find the brand.” He peers into the refrigerated shelves of ready meals until his eyes tear up. The hamburgers don’t look too bad. “Do you know if any of these tastes all right?”

“I wouldn’t know, I’m a vegetarian.”

He can’t keep in a delighted snort. “Really?”

She reaches up to elbow him, right in the rib-hole again, despite the one-week break. “Yes, Jon, wanting to kill evil monsters is not mutually exclusive to being a vegetarian. I am three-dimensional.”

He snorts again.

“Speaking of, you really should buy some vegetables. Look like you need them. I’m just saying.”

“Yes, I was thinking about that.” He puts the packet of hamburgers back down. He saw a rice cooker in the kitchen; he’ll just make some dal rice tonight, and grab veggies and meat for the rest of the week.

“How’s it going, living with Martin?”

His third snort is much less amused, much more bitter, as he follows her to the vegetables section. “If you can call it that. What would you expect? Living alone together with a Lukas, a pleasure.”

“So, how many times did you jump at his throat trying to take his statement?”

“I…”

Huh.

Jon stops in the middle of the aisle and considers the past twelve hours. He was light-headed with craving when Melanie visited and Martin revealed that particular detail, and still famished in the interval until he finally got his hands on a real statement again, but at no point did that thought occur to him. Even now that he contemplates it, the idea doesn’t seem appealing.

“No, actually, I didn’t… No, I didn’t think about it.”

“One good thing, then. Cheers.”

“Yes, sure. He was born straight into the Lonely, fantastic.”

Pfffff,” is Melanie’s reaction, and… not what he would have expected. He looks up at her, standing over the crates of organic produce, deep in examination.

“I get an intervention and crisis cell strategy meeting, but Martin being a monster gets a ‘Pfff’?”

“Okay, not the same,” she states firmly. “You acting like a jerk aside, I was pretty ‘Pfffffffffff’ about the part where you were spooky until you started hurting people. You’re just being a bit over-dramatic over there.”

Jon gapes. “I don’t see how there’s any way to be over-dramatic about the fact that he is a monster by birth.”

“Aren’t we all, though?” She gestures vaguely, as if accusing the organic cucumbers of being eldritch creatures. “It’s not like this only started last year for any of us. I’ve been angry my whole life, and I bet you were insufferable as a brat too.”

He stares at her. “Sorry, Melanie, I was not prepared for a philosophical debate at the supermarket.”

“I’m not having fun either,” she grumbles. “Do you deny being an insufferable brat?”

“No,” he sighs. He picks up a couple of courgettes.

“Thank you. And I’m sure you could make an argument of nature versus nurture there, but, there’s no reason you couldn’t apply that to Martin too. So what does it even mean, you know? It’s just a bit rich to act like he’s worse just because he happens to be related to Captain Creepers, is all I’m saying.”

“I never said he’s worse,” Jon protests morosely. “He hasn’t been going around traumatising people, so far as we know.”

“Yeaaah. If you look at it as nature versus actions, you’re the one not looking good. Martin’s an all right person.”

He stares into the small crate of tomatoes, melancholy. It’s organic ones, all lumped in together, irregularly shaped and their skins shifting in shades from green and yellow to orange and red, colours bleeding into each other with no clear cut-off point. “Gerry did say that these things don’t care about blood,” he concedes eventually.

“The book ghost dude?”

“Yes.” He sighs again. “I’m not sure how much I believe it, still, but he had… quite a lot of knowledge and experience, I suppose.”

Melanie puts a few tomatoes in her basket, carefully, and hands him one with complete spontaneity. He takes it, hold out his hand for another, which she gives him.

“Thank you,” he says.

“You’re welcome, tomatoes are good for you.”

“I mean, for cheering me up.”

She sniffs and pointedly takes a step away. “You have weird standards, Jon.”

He smiles, which in hindsight probably proves her point, and moves on to the grains aisle. He can safely bet on finding rice in Martin’s nearly-empty pantry, but he is absolutely not counting on lentils.

It was partly a half-hearted attempt to run away from the conversation, but Melanie tails him as closely as Daisy used to, so he is faced again with the chance to ask, and he unfortunately does not have a good track record at keeping in the uncomfortable questions. “I’ve been wondering, Melanie,” he says quietly while she grabs some quinoa. He gives himself a couple of seconds to make sure to keep the compulsion at bay before he finishes the thought: “Why are you so nice to me?”

She glances up at him from under her fringe and furrowed brow, quickly, out of the corner of her eye. “You have really weird standards.”

“In this situation, I don’t think so. I expected you to be much angrier at me, for what I’ve done. Like Basira.”

“Mmm.”

She passes the bag of quinoa from one hand to the other, thoughtfully. There’s something almost nervous about it, a tension in her movements, in her shoulders.

“I am mad at you. It’s not that I’m not angry, or that I don’t think it was bad. I really do. Proper pissed at you all of last week. Just.” She dumps it in her basket, with more force than necessary, and Jon recognises the uncomfortable jumpiness she gets when she’s going to talk about herself. He expects her to stop there, but instead she powers through and starts spilling. “All right. So, part of it — you hurt people. I have also hurt people. Something supernatural was influencing you, but it was still you, and you know, I get that. It’s bad. I get that. I wish I could undo it, of course I do. But I still — I still don’t think I deserve to die for that.”

She stops for breath. He knows she’s not looking at him. They are both, in fact, staring at the aligned packets of grains, grocery baskets in hands, not looking at each other.

Eyes on the labels of the lentils like he’s deliberating on which type to buy, Jon tries: “Melanie, do you consider yourself a monster?”

“Not right now,” she replies instantly. “Because I’m not hurting people, right now.”

Jon closes his eyes in the bright neons of the supermarket and swallows, with some difficulty. It’s not a classification criterion he’s encountered before. Jurgen Leitner or Robert Smirke would have probably scoffed at it, even Gerry might have done nothing more than bitterly laugh it off. But it’s a nice one.

“So, I get that Daisy needs to go all repentance and redemption story on it all,” Melanie resumes, speaking very fast like she needs to get out as much as she can before she hits the brakes, “but I’m not going to be burning you at the stake for that, so long as you stop now. And the other part — last person I hurt was you. And I hadn’t seriously hurt anyone in a long time. But hey, turns out, you’d been going around monstering all along, so I’m kind of glad? I slipped and hurt someone else again, but at least, well, it was you, rather than an innocent who didn’t deserve it.”

“I agree.”

Pffffffffffffffffffff,” she goes again, ostensibly light-heartedly, and walks off, her step slightly more stomping than usual. “You totally deserved that stabbing to start with, though.” She stops at the bagged breads in the next aisle. While examining them, she adds, distractedly: “Your little vigilante surgery thing was awful, and it hurt like fuck, and it still hurts every time I close my eyes and I’m so scared, and I hate that I have to live with that now because of you, but it pulled me out of it. Still a long way to go, but I wasn’t going to take the first step if you hadn’t done that. So I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t forgive you, but thank you.”

The sentence drills through Jon’s head.

It echoes like church bells into an emptiness, something missing, resonating with something he cannot locate.

“Jon?”

He hears it again, and again, and not in Melanie’s voice anymore. A deeper voice, a male voice, a voice he hasn’t heard in — only months, for him, barely six months, but they’re nearing the first anniversary of the death of that voice. In his head, Tim repeats: I don’t forgive you, I don’t forgive you, but thank you for this, thank you.

He cannot remember when Tim may have said this, has no context, no memory of this, no idea what Tim could have possibly thanked him for, ever, because Jon never — he never did anything right by Tim, did he? He can’t muster an image of what Tim’s face looked like as he said this. His voice sounds bitter and raw but Jon doesn’t know whether Tim was glaring at him or smiling one of his dark acid smiles.

He didn’t know, he remembers.

He remembers… not knowing.

He remembers being lost, disoriented and confused, whipped about and spinning in a whirl of running colours and distorted shapes, words that made no sense, voices that didn’t sound like anyone he knew. Not knowing anyone, not recognising anyone, unsafe from anyone, strangers lashing out at him, his mind hurting, his eyes weeping. Until — Tim, Tim’s voice, Tim’s dry husky laughter, and clutching to that like a lifeline, following that, reaching out for that, but never reaching him.

But his voice did.

Jon’s own voice, guiding Tim, helping him see. All but putting his finger on the trigger.

Thank you for this.

And then, the explosion, darkness, fear, pain, though the pain started before that.

“Jon, don’t you dare —”

All Jon ever did for Tim was help him die.

Didn’t help, wouldn’t even talk, gave up on trying to convince Tim that he wasn’t supposed to be a sacrifice at the Unknowing. Trapped him with him, stalked him. Didn’t even have the decency to try to save him, that summer’s day in the Archives — sure, Jon was injured, and it was insanely dangerous, and according to the tapes that didn’t stop Sasha from running out right there into the wave of forms and saving Tim’s life. Sasha cut worms out of Jon’s leg, and Martin stayed with him, and Tim all but carried him the entire time down in the tunnels, and Jon didn’t do anything for any of them, just sat and waited and w a t c h e d, clutching his tape recorder, from day one.

If he’d had.

If he’d been the one to jump out, Sasha wouldn’t have ended up in Artefact Storage or anywhere near that table, Sasha wouldn’t have died that day, might even be alive now, two years later — if he hadn’t asked her to come work with him, and Tim, they wouldn’t have gotten trapped within the Archives, they might still be alive —

if he’d stayed with Jurgen Leitner, if he’d seen through Elias, if he’d ever listened

if he hadn’t asked Basira for her help, if he hadn’t asked Daisy for her statement, if he hadn’t encouraged Melanie’s dangerous research or if he’d even just been there, where he was supposed to be, looking after his team rather than just trying to protect himself like a coward

if he hadn’t been so bloody curious

well, that one is a laundry list, of innocents who would not be dead, or hurt, or screaming for help in his nightmares every night, if he’d been able to control himself, ever.

If he’d just died, if he’d just chosen to die rather than stupidly clutched to life, if he’d been strong instead of terrified, Jess Tyrell wouldn’t have come to Martin crying and shaking as she described what Jon did to her. If he’d died human rather than lived to become something else, she and four other people would be living their recovered lives, having moved on and gotten away from it, without him reopening their traumas and pouring salt over the bleeding wounds to sate his own sick, monstrous hunger. Georgie would be free. Melanie wouldn’t be jumpy and limping, Basira wouldn’t be half-blinded and dragging herself around and Daisy wouldn’t be hearing her own blood and struggling to not lose herself to feral instinct again. Martin wouldn’t be working for Peter Lukas.

(No.

That last one might not be true, because Martin belonged to the Lukases long before this one made his way to the Institute, has always been one of them. Perhaps Jon could never have stopped this and Martin was lost from the start. Perhaps Martin cold and distant is the true Martin, tired of trying and done with pretending to care.)

“Jon, no, I did not sign up for watching you cry in public in Tesco.”

It occurs to him that he is. He is crying.

His eyes sting and his vision is blurred with tears, staining his lenses, mute but big aching sobs that hack their way up his chest soundlessly, twist his vocal chords. The supermarket has dissolved into a haze of colours and fuzzy shapes.

He’s crying, finally, finally, crying in mourning for Tim finally, for Sasha, for the victims, his and others’ he hasn’t helped, for the people in his dreams and the people on the tapes and the people in the coffin, in the dark, in the ruins of the House of Wax or the files of the Magnus Institute, for Georgie whom he has lost and Martin whom he has been losing for years, unless he does something.

“Jon, please, people are looking at me like they think I’m dumping you, you can’t do this to me,” Melanie hisses, panicked. She has put down her shopping bags and is trying to pull him away to the back of the aisle, with limited success despite his lack of resistance.

He swallows, hard, takes the sunglasses off to rub his sleeve against his eyes. “Do you…” he starts, then stops and rubs his eyes again because he’s still weeping, which is awful and wonderful. He tries again, manages a slobbery puddle of words in the shape of: “Have you heard from Georgie lately?”

He can’t look at her, but he can feel her dismayed stare on him.

“Yyyyyes. She’s my friend.” A pause. “Jon, please tell me this is not over Georgie dumping you years ago —”

A bubbling chortle escapes from him like a hiccup, perfectly, beautifully incongruous. “No, no, I.” He swallows, tastes salt, uselessly rubs his face again. “I. I have another favour to ask of you, I think.”

“Whatever just so long as you stop crying in the goddamn supermarket, Jon, seriously, how can you do this to me.”

 


 

He… does stop, but starts again a few times, small sudden outbursts all over again each time his mind catches on another memory or lack thereof (Tim’s favourite brand of candy bars; did Sasha have a favourite? did Jon ever know this?). Melanie grumbles about the indignity for the entire rest of the errand and the walk back, but after dropping him back into Basira’s custody, she leaves for some privacy to call Georgie.

Basira very pointedly does not ask what happened to him and Jon goes to rinse off his face in the bathroom sink. When he peers into the stain-speckled mirror, he thinks he looks a little better than he did this morning, in some way. He is tired again, bone-deep exhausted and drained, his brain emptied out, but at least it took the headache with it. Jon feels strangely cleansed and quiet, like a garden after a strong rainstorm.

A good ten minutes later, Melanie’s sullen face pops back into the office and announces: “All right, you’re officially allowed to e-mail Georgie.”

Which makes the task infinitely easier, though it still takes the better part of Jon’s afternoon.

 


 

In the evening, Martin comes to collect him. (“Jon, your dad’s here to pick you up,” says Basira, and then Melanie lets out a horrible snorting snicker and Jon staunchly refuses to explain.) They arrange the details of Jon’s babysitting going forwards: Martin will give the single copy of his key card to Melanie, who will keep it on her at all times, and she’ll come pick Jon up every morning and walk him back every evening.

“Are you sure?” Jon checks again, uncomfortable.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll be your escort. Walker. Whatever.” Melanie shrugs, as if it weren’t a big deal, as if it were a normal thing to expect of her after Jon traumatised her so badly she couldn’t sleep without having nightmares of him. “Martin’s got you at home, Basira in the Archives, and me outside. Should we decide on a fixed schedule? Since your doorbell doesn’t work.”

“Technically it works,” Martin points out tiredly, “it just can’t be heard inside the flat.”

“Right.”

“Is that what’s up with the texting too?” Basira chimes in. “We sent you guys like fifty texts and e-mails last week. With no reply.”

Ah. “I didn’t receive any of those,” Jon confirms with a sigh. He adjusts his grip on the grocery bags. “So I’ll expect you at eight, Melanie?”

She shrugs again, Basira gives a lazy wave, and off they go.

 


 

Silence falls again on them the second they are out of the Institute building, like a weight dropped on the pair of them. Jon thinks about that, and about the conversation they just had, and about the ones he’s had throughout the day. “Say, Martin,” he musters as they turn the first street corner, “could you, uh, dial it down a little?”

His eyes on the pavement, Martin makes a wordless Hm? sound, not particularly encouraging, but not quite dissuasive either, so Jon elaborates:

“The flat? I understand that you don’t want to see me, but it’s, uhm, a bit much.”

Martin actually looks up and at him, this time, even has a facial expression — a little thrown. “What do you mean?”

“The… silence, mostly.”

“I don’t control it.”

Jon blinks, then remembers about his sunglasses and says out loud: “What?”

“It’s just the flat,” Martin replies, nonplussed. “That’s just how it is. I’m not doing anything, if you were wondering.”

“I… assumed.” Jon bites his lip on the follow-up clause to that: that he just learned that Martin is a Lukas and it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to be able to control a place imbued with his family’s influence.

Martin sighs. “No, I can more or less control what I’m doing, but I can’t really do anything about the flat. It’s not quite as strong if you don’t spend all day inside, though.”

“Yes, well.”

Martin turns away to look forwards again, but his shoulders go down and he droops slightly, as if giving in to fatigue. Softening, just a bit. “Should get easier from now on.”

“That’s… good to hear, I suppose.”

There’s a short stiff pause where even Jon can tell that Martin missed the cue to respond. He expects silence to fall, but instead, Martin pipes up, belatedly, awkwardly: “You did groceries?”

“Ah, yes.” Jon eyes the carrots peeking out from one of the bags, suddenly self-conscious. “I’m, uh, a little tired of ready meals.”

Martin hums again.

That’s an opening, Jon can see it. Small talk has never come naturally between them; for years, Jon would shut down Martin’s every effort, and then recently it somehow shifted the opposite way around. This is an offer, and Jon does have a question, but he doesn’t know how to word So does that mean you voted to keep me alive? without sounding accusatory.

Before he figures it out, his phone beeps to life. He juggles one of the shopping bags to his other hand to wrestle it out of his pocket and is rewarded with a screenful of exposed feline belly, then a text:

Georgina Barker, 6:12pm
The Admiral misses you too, I think.

It’s like his stomach had been tied in a knot until now and just uncoiled, like all the pent-up tension in his body is relaxing at once, like he’d been holding his breath and is letting it out again, and inhaling a deep gulp of fresh air. He sighs an immense sigh.

“It’s Georgie,” he tells Martin, dizzy with relief. “And her cat.”

Martin barely gives the picture a perfunctory glance before turning his gaze back to the pavement ahead. “Oh,” he says, and that’s it.

“I don’t know if you’ve met Georgie? She visited me in the hospital a lot, apparently.”

“No,” Martin says. His pace picks up, and with his long legs, Jon has to hurry up after him for the rest of the way back to the flat.

 


 

It’s just a text, just acknowledgement, not forgiveness or redemption or anything, but it’s like… permission. Like he’s finally reached a destination, or at least a stopover, and he can pause for a bit, can get some respite. Logically, there is no correlation between Georgie sending him a conciliatory text and the fact that Jon has barely and chaotically slept over the last week, and it is a simple matter of exhaustion catching up to him, but he has always had an unhealthy rapport to rest as something that has to be earned.

Any which way, he doesn’t even stress out about being back in the flat and alone again: he goes straight to his bedroom and collapses face first into his pillow, and sleeps; and dreams.

 


 

In Georgie’s dream, she raises an eyebrow at him and gestures to his face, as if to comment on the shaving, then to his clothes, which are his work clothes he hasn’t changed out of. Nice try but not there yet, she seems to be conveying — which is hundreds, thousands of times better than her looking disappointed or distrustful. That’s almost a nice dream, aside from the guilt.

The dream after that is Naomi Herne’s, and Jon tries to stop himself from looking for a name on the gravestones in the fog. He doesn’t even know what name he’s expecting, hoping, dreading to see: hers, his, Peter Lukas’s, Martin’s. Would it say ‘Martin Blackwood’, or ‘Martin Lukas’? He thinks he would be able to recognise the name of Martin’s father, if he read it. But all the words on the stones are blurred out and unreadable aside from just the one: Forsaken, Forsaken, Forsaken. In her grave, Naomi Herne screams, and screams, and screams, and no one is here with her but Jon who can neither answer her not reach a hand to pull her out, and this time no beloved dead voice makes itself heard to help her out of this nowhere.

The dream after that is the dark one.

There is no one else, in this dream, still: only the darkness, thick and heavy, binding and choking him.

And he wakes from this one into darkness still.

He cannot see anything, and he cannot move, and he cannot breathe.

And it is all stupid — he has his eyes closed, and he is having a bit of sleep paralysis which happens to him sometimes, and he fell asleep with his face in his pillow, it’s all perfectly mundane and rational, but that doesn’t stop the panic from building up. He knows where he is, but his body and brain recognise the feeling and remember being blinded in pure and absolute darkness and being crushed and buried under the entire world. The knowledge doesn’t do anything to abate the fear. His heart is hammering hard up against his palate and in his temples and in his ears, trying to burst out, trying to run away and it can’t, it can’t, it can’t.

He is frozen into place, with nothing to look at, nothing to listen to, nothing to ground him and anchor him back to the real world. His bedroom has no windows to let in any sliver of light, and there isn’t even the blink or glow of any electronics because he didn’t bother to take his phone out; there is no creaking, no footsteps or talking or music, no snoring or fornicating neighbours, no whisper of traffic or whining sirens from the street. The flat itself is made of silence and stillness. He’s fairly sure at this point that there are no neighbours at all, no one else in the entire building, period. There’s only Martin.

Allegedly.

His fist, clutched in a dead grip on the hemming of his pillow, twitches, open and then back closed, like trying to grasp something. Pins and needles; formication, the prickling sensation akin to that of tiny insects scurrying under one’s skin. He chases the feeling back up his arm, to his chest, to his core — and rolls over all at once, gasping for air, eyes opening, opening, opening. Rolls again, off the bed, crumbles to the floor, scrambles out of the sheets and pulls himself up to his feet.

He doesn’t know where Martin is. He must be in his room, in all likelihood, all evidence points to it and Jon knows this like he knows academic theory: the sun sets in the West, people generally sleep at night, Martin is most probably in his bed. But he doesn’t know it. He cannot feel Martin’s presence in this forsaken lonely place, and after a day of being back to following the movements and activities of all the little busy bees in the swarming hive of the Institute at all times without a second thought or effort, it is an uncomfortable phantom feeling, like having lost an entire sense.

Jon has been back to his patron’s place of power, has read a real statement and recorded it, has slept and dreamed; his eyes are wide open and neither the distance nor the walls of this place can stop him from seeing Daisy, back for the night and asleep on her cot in his office right now, Basira curled up and reading in his chair with one hand holding Daisy’s. If he strains he can even detect Melanie’s presence in the general area where he knows she has set up her quarters near the entrance of the tunnels. He is sure he could see Elias, wherever he is, if he wished to. But he can’t spot Martin through two doors and a hallway.

Jon has this thought, and he is standing, and he is walking, as if following a pull: he does not know the way, intellectually, doesn’t even remember which door it was Martin disappeared into a week or months ago, but something inside him does. His gut, or his still thumping heart, or just his feet, that bring him naturally and unerringly out of his room, down the corridor, past doors leading he knows not where, to the one that leads to Martin. He opens it, slowly, silently.

Martin is there, lying in a bed, in a room, that must be his, though like the rest of the flat they do not resemble him. His eyelids are lowered, his mouth is half open, breathing gently, his hair messy on the pillow. He seems to be curled in a foetal position that cannot be good for his back, burrowed under an impressive pile of duvets and comforters; despite that, he’s still shivering a little, if one looks closely, which Jon is doing.

Jon breathes in.

Martin’s there. This room, too, is blanketed in darkness, but he’s there, Jon can see him. He’s not gone, invisible or magicked away nor swallowed up by lonesomeness while no one was looking. He’s there. It’s fine.

(He’s not fine, but neither is Jon. Not many of them have been remotely close to fine in… a while, a long while. It has stopped being a non-negotiable issue. They deal in least-unpleasant options and majority votes these days.)

Jon breathes out.

Martin’s there, but he could… he could leave. Could go missing in the night, snatched out of his bed by some monster climbed in through his window, or taken back by Peter Lukas, or wasted away, or just — up and gone, of his own free will, just because he doesn’t care about Jon anymore. Jon has a literal catalogue of likely suspects and disappearance scenarii, some of which he or Martin have even met personally, one of which Martin is, and so much has happened to him that Jon didn’t know about, and so much more yet that he still doesn’t. He could just vanish and Jon wouldn’t know until the morning, wouldn’t even know for sure for days, and he doesn’t. He can’t. Sleep is hard enough, he can’t face it with the thought of waking up to Martin’s real, definite absence.

Jon is not quite awake or aware, just frantic, worried worried worried, rabbit-hearted and breathless with it, so he doesn’t really think. The solution is obvious, anyway. Martin can’t disappear without his knowledge if Jon doesn’t let him out of his sight.

So Jon sits down.

His eyes are prickling again, with effort and focus, but not with lethargy. He doesn’t know how long he’s actually managed to sleep, but that’s irrelevant already; however long it was, it was enough, it will have to be. He can’t sleep. He has to keep watch on Martin.

There isn’t much he can do, but he can do this.

Keep watching.

He sits, against the wall, and watches Martin’s face in the dark, and listens to his regular breathing, and waits for the morning light.

 

Chapter Text

When the sun seeps through the slits between the window blinds, casting thin strips of light on Martin’s floor, Jon stands and sneaks out, silently closing the door behind him.

 


 

He goes through his tentative morning routine, puts together a second and only slightly more successful attempt at a healthy-approaching breakfast with some cereal and fruit he bought the day before. Eats alone. At eight o’clock, the door opens, Melanie’s “Knock knock?” rings down the corridor, and Jon goes to work.

Basira awards him a grunt of not-overly-congratulatory-but-satisfied-enough approval when he tells her about Georgie’s text. (She does, however, warmly compliment the picture of the Admiral, and Melanie asks that Jon send it to her.)

The day… passes, without Jon trying to assault anyone, without Elias coming down to traumatise anyone, and without Peter Lukas showing his face to whoosh anyone. No yellow door materialising anywhere strange, either. A perfectly mundane work day in the Archives of the Magnus Institute. Jon even eats lunch, sitting on the floor of his dark office with Basira, and Melanie accompanies him outside so he can go have a smoke and stock up on cigarettes.

At six o’clock, Melanie walks Jon back, and he finally puts into motion his plan to cook.

He plugs in the sophisticated rice cooker, figures out how to get it to function, and does find a packet of Basmati, as well as, after frisking the near-empty cabinets, a basic but workable set of spices. The dal rice ends up rather simple, but still fragrant, though the scent does not make it past the door of the kitchen when he steps out to go to the bathroom.

He draws it out, waiting, for some reason, as if exceptionally Martin might start showing up for dinner now that they have had a conversation that didn’t end with him storming off. Eventually Jon resigns himself to sit down, and still serves two plates, eats as slowly as he can. Leaves out the extra plate when he moves back to the living room, not quite hopeful, but just… in case.

By midnight, it’s still there, sitting alone and cold on the kitchen table, so he covers it up in cling wrap and puts it in the fridge.

The light from the refrigerator pierces through his retinae, but his eyes have been stinging for hours already from looking at his laptop screen, even on the minimal luminosity setting, the words jumbling all together. The lack of sleep is a dull pressure in his cranium like an index finger pressing between his eyebrows, yet he cannot bring himself to move to his bedroom. If he goes to bed now, he’ll wake up in the middle of the night in his windowless room, in darkness.

So he closes the fridge, goes back to the lounge to shut his laptop and tidy up his things on the corner of the coffee table that he has more or less colonised, and lets his feet take him to Martin’s bedroom, quietly.

Martin is there. Jon lets his breath out.

This is normal and logical — Martin has to be somewhere, after all — and still not something Jon would have betted on. He’s not quite sure how it works. Does the flat not affect the sleeping? Does Martin appear and disappear as he crosses the threshold of his bedroom? Or is his vanishing act something of his own device that he has to keep up consciously, and does it thus only work when he’s awake?

Jon files these questions away to the very back of his mind, puts them in a box and pushes it out of a mental window. He doesn’t need to know that. All that matters is that Martin is here, right now.

Jon sits quietly against the wall, and starts his vigil.

 


 

In the morning, he makes some Earl Grey for himself, and pours a second mug. Doesn’t add anything, because while Martin had immediately noticed and remembered Jon’s indulgence of one sugar cube and a drop of cream in black tea, Jon still doesn’t know how Martin takes his own, so he just leaves the extra mug as is. It hasn’t been touched by the time Melanie comes to pick him up.

He moves the folding cot into his office and has a long nap there, which is perfectly fine with Basira. It’s not the most restful, between the summer heat and, of course, the fact that he still dreams, but waking up in the Institute in the middle of the day, and with people around, he notes, does make a difference.

 


 

Melanie walks him back and forth between the flat and the Institute. He still struggles with breakfast, his stomach revolting at the thought of food that early in the day no matter how long he’s been awake, but manages to cook a real dinner every other evening that week. Each time, he puts out a plate, wraps it up when it goes uneaten, ends up eating it the next day.

The biggest change is the enforced work hours. Basira glowers him out of the office at six o’clock on the dot, and he’s not allowed to take any file home; added to having virtually no commute anymore, he finds himself with long, empty evenings to fill, and the realisation that he has no bloody inkling of how to occupy so much free time. Ever since he started out at the Institute, long before the Archives and the murder framing and the kidnappings and the Unknowing and Ny-Ålesund, he always came in early and stayed late and continued reading up on research far into his evenings. Before that… well, if anything he was an even more obsessive student. Now he doesn’t have a topic to hyperfocus on, none of his own books. No acquaintances left outside the Institute — not that he would likely be allowed to just go hang out alone with other people. He isn’t currently dating anyone, and his flatmate doesn’t actually share the same physical space as him.

So, to fight off the boredom of loneliness, Basira suggests the pile of books she’s borrowed from the library over the last year. After a few days of spending time outside of the flat et talking to people, the electronics’ mysterious malfunction gradually resolves itself; Jon has good Wi-Fi and sound again, and Melanie gives him a list of things to watch (apparently Martin ‘probably has Netflix, everyone has Netflix, Jon’). He gets started on a Youtube paranormal investigation series, which is… all right. Not something he would have considered worth spending his scant leisure time on years ago, but, well. The situation has changed.

And at night, when he’s too tired to parse words, written or heard, he simply goes to watch Martin.

On the fourth night, it occurs to him that although Martin’s room does have a window, its blinds are shut, and while some of the glow of the city lights sneaks its way through the thin slits, there is in no way enough of it to see by, and certainly not enough for Jon to be able to detail Martin’s sleeping facial expressions or freckles from across the room.

So apparently Jon can see in the dark now.

At least, in natural darkness, in real life. Not in the dark dream — which has been gradually making itself less frequent and overbearing, but is still utterly pitch-black, completely sightless. Almost worse, now that this is something entirely unique that Jon doesn’t experience in the waking world anymore.

So he keeps up with the napping in the office in the afternoons. It might be simpler for him to turn fully nocturnal, but going to the Archives by day helps; getting out of the flat, seeing and talking with the others, having half-light and people around when he wakes. He doesn’t expect it to stop any of the dreams, but it at least circumnavigates the terror upon waking up, and Melanie is, after all, ‘equipped’ for dealing with him were he to start sleepwalking.

The routine suits Jon. Lets him function. It may be far from a normal way to go about one’s day, but one after another eventually makes for something that passes for a perfectly normal work week again, if one doesn’t look too close. And the weekend — well, he gets through the weekend.

 


 

“Hey,” says Daisy on Monday morning.

She is sitting in her beat-up chair next to Jon’s desk, bundled up in her thick hoodie with her hands in the pockets, her feet up and her dirt-caked heels on his desk.

“Oh,” Jon lets out. “Uhm. Hello.”

There’s a tense sort of silence. But she seems normal, and Melanie did come fetch him and said nothing about her being back in the Archives, and Basira doesn’t look up from where she is burrowed in her nest, so it seems to be… okay for Daisy to be in his presence.

It doesn’t… change… anything.

Well, it changes one thing, or more precisely, one thing returns to almost what it used to be:

“You up to date?”

Melanie yells through the open door; from her fortress of pillows, Basira laughs, quietly. Jon, for his part, sighs.

“The baby, huh?”

“Forget the baby, I can’t believe they’re selling the house!

Jon hates himself for having caught up, meaning they have two weeks of griping about The Archers to make up for.

 


 

Daisy looks… all right, like Basira said. Quiet, but that is not necessarily bad in itself, nor is it strange from her. Jon is once more torn with the extremely unpleasant mixture of shame and not wanting to ask fighting the ever-present curiosity about what she’s been doing. But the week crawls on and their interactions do not stray from discussing the previous day’s episode and speculating ahead. (The tattered remains of Jon’s pride hesitate to qualify that as a success.)

Georgie is pretty much the same, The Archers aside. The texts they have been exchanging remain restricted to mundane topics; the Admiral made a fuss about her changing his usual dry food to a low-sodium brand, disappeared for two days before finally popping back up, looking like he had crawled through a battlefield even though Georgie is fairly sure he never left the street. Now he eats happily and spends his day slowly rolling across her living room floor to follow the patches of sunlight, before waking up in the evening and running around all night meowing as loud as he can.

Georgina Barker, 3:34pm
It’s fine, haven’t been sleeping much anyway.
Finishing up on recording end of season, sigh

Jon’s stomach twists, a little. He doesn’t dare reply to wish her better sleep, and it hadn’t felt right to go back to listening to What The Ghost? after she left him at the hospital, so he’s almost a full year behind now and can’t sincerely comment on that either.

It’s an entire day before he finally writes (and an hour before he sends):

Sent 10:15am
Can we talk face to face?

He does not regret it immediately. He starts regretting it by mid-afternoon, when he’s half-way into trying to sort the real from the bogus of a ten-years-untouched cardboard box of statements and Georgie still hasn’t replied.

Finally, the ding of his phone pulls him from the old cursive-written account he has been utterly failing to concentrate on enough to decipher a single word.

Georgina Barker, 4:32pm
Melanie is coming by tomorrow, you can come with her.

 


 

“Yeaaahhh, uhm. Will you behave?”

“I hope so,” Jon replies quietly. Judging from the way she squints at him, this does not appear to alleviate Melanie’s reluctance in the slightest.

She shifts in place, as though the sofa has suddenly stopped being comfortable, sits up and pulls her legs close to her. “Okay, but.” She scratches her shin through her jeans, nervously. “I… uhm. We have to go somewhere after that. And you can’t come along.”

“Oh, therapy?”

“Jon!” She hisses, flushing all at once, an angry dark crimson, and she looks about to hit him, only she doesn’t.

“Ah, I didn’t —” he fumbles, instinctively putting his hands up as a shield between the two of them. “I didn’t… pull that out, I really just guessed. You usually go Thursdays, so. I guessed.” Now that he’s being made to actually pay attention to weekdays again.

“Yes, well, congratulations. Even so, don’t…” Her hand is compulsively picking at her trouser leg again. “You don’t have to announce it out loud to the whole world, all right.” She exhales, loudly. “Anyway. That means, what. I can’t leave you alone.”

Jon is about to say that he has spent days alone in Georgie’s flat with the Admiral and would not at all mind getting locked in for another such afternoon, but he is interrupted by a: “I can come pick him up.”

He blinks and has to look around for her before he actually notices Daisy perched on a chair at Tim’s desk. She hasn’t looked up from the computer screen she’s watching cat videos on; her face is a perfectly stoic mask and she isn’t giving the slightest indication of listening in.

“Uhm,” Jon falters. “Are you… sure about that?”

“Yeah. Every once in a while is fine.”

Melanie bites her upper lip and chews on it, clearly worried. “I don’t know, it’s… It’s Georgie’s private address, and she’s really not keen on…”

Getting tangled up with more monsters isn’t exactly something Jon would find easy to say to Daisy’s face either.

“Well, I already know her address anyway,” Daisy says with a shrug.

“What?” Jon blurts out, at the same time as Melanie does. He glances at her, a little unsettled at the harmony, and meets her identical peeved side-glare.

Jon elects to just shelve that for now, though, because Daisy is coolly explaining that, yeah, back when he was suspected of the murder of that one old John Doe (“Jurgen Leitner.” “Whatever.”), she had tracked him down and interrogated Georgina Barker.

“… And you didn’t find him?” Melanie gapes.

“Oh, I knew he was in there. Smelled him. Just wanted to keep the chase going a little longer.”

Jon rubs his temple. Georgie had mentioned the police, but it had never occurred to him that it might have been Detective Tonner herself. “That was… very close, hm?”

“Mmhm.”

“Oookay,” Melanie resumes cautiously, rocking a little in place in her corner of the sofa, “well. Still. Georgie is a friend, I don’t want to force her into anything she doesn’t want.”

“Won’t bother her,” Daisy mutters, clicking on a new video. It’s a compilation of kittens in Halloween costumes. The month is still July. Her facial expression doesn’t change.

There is an oddly timed pause here, and something shifts in Melanie’s face to turn almost… mischievous, almost gleeful, before she exclaims: “Oh, you’re a fan too!

Daisy’s head sinks between her shoulders and she mumbles something entirely unintelligible, while in the office, Basira is taken with a suspicious fit of coughing.

“Uh,” says Jon. “Right.”

At least that seems to have cheered up Melanie.

So the final programme they work out for this little expedition is such: tomorrow, after lunch, Melanie and Jon will take the bus to Georgie’s flat, then when it’s time to leave for Melanie’s appointment, Daisy will come pick up Jon and drive him back. Sometimes Georgie waits for Melanie to be done in a café and they hang out afterwards, so Daisy might take over escorting Jon back to Martin’s flat as well. It’s all quite neatly decided, planned and arranged.

That evening, Melanie walks Jon home. He dines early (pasta with a simple vegetable sauce), without hopelessly waiting for Martin to join him, though he still leaves out a plate. Then, since he won’t be able to nap at his usual time tomorrow, he lies down on the living room sofa with a blanket and his laptop and lets himself drift to sleep with a nature documentary. It starts with deep ocean life, but that’s fine. The Vast isn’t a fear he is particularly susceptible to.

He wakes up around midnight, shaking and shivering, and immediately shuts his laptop on a pair of spiders in the middle of a courting ritual. Georgie watched him without blinking, her face blank and undecipherable, perfectly neutral. Jon wraps the blanket around himself and goes to make some tea. He puts away the uneaten plate while the water boils, and when his mug is ready, he carefully takes it with him to Martin’s room.

One worry at a time. Tomorrow he’ll face Georgie. Tonight he reassures himself that Martin is, despite all daylight evidence to the contrary, still there.

 


 

The journey is not that long, by London standards, but this is still the longest Jon has ever sat alone next to Melanie. They have become used, though, to sharing this silence over the short daily walks together; or at the very least, Jon has, and Melanie does not appear to be ill-at-ease either. They eventually get off the bus and walk through the lazy suburban neighbourhood to the familiar tired old townhouse. There’s new curtains at Georgie’s window, he thinks, and about a dozen more potted plants on the steps leading to the upstairs flat, but that’s about the only difference he can spot. That, and, of course, the fact that he doesn’t have a key anymore.

Melanie rings the doorbell and Jon takes a quiet deep breath.

Georgie hasn’t changed either. He thinks. It’s possible that she has, since the last couple times he actually saw her in the flesh, six months ago and six months before that, and that he simply cannot notice it because it happened gradually and he sees her almost every time he falls asleep. She hasn’t put on any make-up, so he recognises the tired bags under her eyes, the impassive line of her mouth, the bed head.

“Melanie,” she says, neutral. “Jon.”

He is aware in an almost physical manner of her gaze trailing over the gashes, striking on the freshly-shaven skin of his face — she’s seen them before, of course, in her dreams, but never in this plane of reality. He swallows; his throat is a little tight. “Georgie.”

“I hate this already,” decrees Melanie. “Can we come in?”

“Oh, sure, come in, come in.” Georgie gestures down the dark hallway, just a little flick of her hand; not quite warm, but not nervous either. In all the years he has known her, Jon has never seen her nervous. He isn’t certain that that is an emotion she is able to feel. “Tea, coffee?” she offers as they take off their shoes. “Afraid I haven’t got anything stronger.”

“Sounds wiser anyway,” Melanie groans. “Don’t want to have to deal with drunk Jon before therapy.”

“But it’s fine on a work night?” Jon gibes. “Tea would be lovely, Georgie, thank you.”

She drifts away to the kitchen with no further comment.

Jon stands awkwardly in the middle of the living room while Melanie plops down on the faded floral loveseat. He wants to go help, but doesn’t want to corner Georgie in her own home, but this is an occasion to talk without the awkwardness of a third party, but she suggested this set-up specifically because they wouldn’t be alone —

“Go,” Melanie hisses without looking at him. So he goes.

He hovers in the doorway of the kitchen, careful not to block it, and announces himself with a: “Uhm, can I do anything?”

Georgie looks up from the sink and, after a beat, smiles at him, just a small reflexive thing but spontaneous, real. She is backlit by the bright afternoon sunlight pouring in from the window at the end of her long narrow kitchen, and her hair glows from it like a fluffy crown. Even with the sunglasses, Jon’s eyes prickle, but he doesn’t want to look away.

“Grab the cups,” Georgie says.

Opening the cups cabinet means Jon must move right beside her. He easily finds her favourite mug (with the little ghost saying ‘Morning, boo-tiful!’) and his usual one with the WTG? logo. The others are either plain or cats-themed, so he picks one at random. He sets them in a neat little line side-by-side on the tray, and then he has nothing more to do with his hands.

“How have you been doing?” he asks, quietly, while the water heats.

She turns around and leans back against the counter top. Her hands rest on the edge of it, her left hand close to Jon’s, comfortably, but with enough distance still to be in no danger of accidentally touching it. “I’m fine,” she says. “I’m living my life. This is kind of about you, though.”

“It’s not…”

“Yes, it is. So: how’ve you been doing?” she retorts. “But no details, please.”

His first reflex is to go for a reassuring lie, but the moment he formulates that thought, she squints at him aggressively — perhaps because it is taking him too long to think up an answer for it to really be that easy, or perhaps simply because she knows him so well. “Not great,” he eventually admits. “But I’m working on it.”

“Mmm.” She watches him for a moment, hawk-eyed, and he submits to it meekly. “Working how? Because the Scarface look isn’t super convincing. I agreed to see you because Melanie said something about trying, but I don’t want to be running into monsters from hanging out with you again.”

Implying that she does not count him as one of the monsters. Possibly. Conceivably. He might be reading into it, and if not, he isn’t sure he agrees with that assessment; but he appreciates the wording and its potential affirmation anyway.

“That’s not part of the plan, no,” he replies slowly. “On the contrary, hopefully.”

“Mmm,” she repeats, and turns away, towards the tea drawer. “Earl Grey?”

“Do you still have that chai?”

“Sure. Get the milk?”

He does, and she busies herself with readying the teapot and tray for a moment.

“Then,” she resumes, her eyes now fixed on the kettle which is starting to boil. “My second condition is: I don’t want to have to go through the process of losing you. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, lost the capacity to feel an entire emotion, not a fan.” She hasn’t even budged as she says this, firm but casual, as if unaffected. To Jon, her stability and level head were always a good thing, something he could depend on; in all the years they knew each other it had never occurred to him, before she gave him her statement, that it might have such a dark origin.

It’s not that learning about it opened his eyes to the true Georgina Barker — he may not have known that specific part of her past, just like he’s never told her about A Guest for Mr. Spider, but he knew her. Dating and living together unavoidably meant opening up in countless different ways, making themselves vulnerable, showing wounds and weaknesses. Jon now realises that it didn’t scare her like it scared him, but it’s something she didn’t like to do either; still a big deal, when she does it, when she brings up again this story she never told anyone else, when she acknowledges having been hurt in the past and not wanting to be hurt again.

It’s good to get a reminder, every so often. Remember that other people are, also, people.

The kettle clicks off.

“I can’t guarantee that I won’t die,” he says.

She shrugs. “That’s fair. That’s normal, we all die, Jon. I’m just not sticking around to watch you deliberately run into trouble until it sticks. If you’re going to be throwing yourself at monsters, or giving into whatever you were afraid of turning into, I’d rather cut my losses right now.”

“No, I. I don’t think I want that either.” He chuckles weakly. “I’m working on avoiding it. We’re… all working on not losing me, in general.” He considers this while Georgie fills the pot. Basira strictly regimenting his diet and activities, Melanie accompanying him everywhere he needs to go, Daisy facing her own urges in order to track down his victims, Martin not sharing but still offering his own space. “Apparently.”

He mulls it over some more, because — Basira who has never trusted him from the day they met and shot him without a second’s hesitation, Daisy who planned to murder him for months and signed herself to the Institute to kick him out of her dreams, Melanie whom he couldn’t exchange five words with without reaching insults and shouting and who sent him off to possible death with the whisper of I hope it hurts long before she’d completely lost it, Martin who is embracing monsterhood rather than talking to him. Jon has scars from all of them (corkscrew included) and there’s half a dozen different weapons scattered around the Archives and the coffin right there in Artefact Storage, and rather than kill him they’re all trying to keep him alive and human.

“Shit,” he lets slip.

Georgie snorts loudly, open and unguarded, and after it she is grinning.

Jon carries the softly clinking tea tray and Georgie brings the snacks to the living room, where Melanie is sprawled over the loveseat by now, reading one of her books. She gives a grunt of acknowledgement, pulls her feet back to make room for Georgie to sit down, nabs a jam drop from one of the open packets and pointedly does not pay them any more attention than this.

Georgie pours the chai, hands Jon his cup and a stick of shortbread. She picks up her own, shifts into a comfortable position against the backrest of the sofa, and says: “So.”

She is looking at Jon now, very much so.

It is not hostile. It is not an antagonistic or hateful gaze, she is not intending to attack or hurt him; just facing him, watching and seeing him. He’s not sure if it’s ironic or only makes sense that even being what he is, belonging to the god he does, this still terrifies him.

And it is not, either, that he cannot meet her gaze. In her dream, in his dreams, he is literally unable to look away, in the strictest sense, no matter how much he would like to struggle. This is not that. Right now, facing her in real life, Jon does not feel any supernatural influence on his actions or desires and he has the capacity to look Georgie in the eye. He could bring himself to do it, if he wanted to. There is no outside reason he doesn’t; simply the fact that he is a coward.

Instead he focuses on her hand curled around her mug. He stares at the chips of her black nail polish as all of the ways he has imagined this conversation going squirm out from his grasp, coiling and fading away like so many wisps of tea steam, leaving only the feeling of being naked and the instinctive urge to hide, to wrap himself in a mantle of excuses. He wants to say that this is not his fault, that nothing is or was his fault, that he didn’t know; he bites his lip on it.

Melanie turns her page and then the only thing remaining in the silence is the ticking of Georgie’s slowly expiring grandfather clock. The sound makes Jon’s skin crawl.

He clears his throat, painfully, and inhales.

“I see you in my dreams,” he finally says. “I… watch you, in my dreams.”

Georgie blinks, doesn’t otherwise react.

“And… in yours.”

“Mmm,” she goes again, and nothing more.

“I…” He wets his dry lips. “It’s something I did to you, and I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry I did.”

“Mmhmm.”

He drags his gaze up, honing on the mole near the left corner of her mouth. Her face is still blank; she doesn’t seem curious as to the how or why.

It’s almost surprising, really, that Jon doesn’t immediately get an information notice of how she is feeling or what she is thinking right now. Perhaps her immunity to fear blocks the more passive of his powers. Perhaps the Eye isn’t interested; or perhaps it enjoys beholding Jon’s struggle with a dearth of information.

“It’s because you gave me your story. Or,” he corrects with a sigh, “because I made you give your story to me. A side-effect I was unaware of at first.”

He waits, again, for her to take her turn speaking, for her questions or recriminations, but after a few ticks of the clock all she says, matter-of-fact, is: “At first.”

Detachedly, Jon notes that he’s starting to feel a little sick.

“I was… starting to notice a pattern,” he admits after a deep breath. “Recurring nightmares, every night, specifically related to the statements I’d had in live interviews, and not to the ones I’d read aloud or, or got old recordings of. Only, and all, the ones I had been given directly.” Another inhale, that almost manages to not sound shaky, so that he can push out the rest without stopping for air. “Or — that I’d taken directly. Apparently I can do that, too, and I don’t know — there’s no way to know if you really gave me your story willingly, Georgie, or if I made you want to, without being aware of it. I, I didn’t want to hurt you,” he remembers to stress, “but it’s possible I forced it out of you. That’s something that I can do. That I have done.”

Georgie doesn’t speak, doesn’t move. Steam rises gently from their cups; Jon has a feeling that the tea will go cold before Georgie decides to really talk. In the meantime, he gets the message, and struggles on on his own.

“The dreams…” Inhale. Push it out. “… well, yours are different, but, normally… they make people go through the events again. Experience the same trauma, or, or other ways it could have gone. Terrify them all over again, so that their fears continue to feed the…” It’s absurd, how hard it is, that little further teaspoon of honesty, when he’s already spilling into the open. “… my…” And yet his throat tightens, his windpipe empties, his voice breaks. “… the Institute’s god.” Georgie is staring at him, he can feel her gaze even though he still isn’t meeting it, heavy and imperturbable as a gravestone, and he owes her the truth. He isn’t even being compelled, she isn’t even peering inside of him to the core of who he is, how he feels and what he has done, and it is excruciating, and he owes to her and to all of them to at least not be a coward in the face of such a laughable version of what he has put them through. He clears his throat like coughing up phlegm. “Or… or me, I suppose.”

Georgie doesn’t blink.

Melanie turns a page.

“Their stories f-feed me, and I give them to be Beheld. In — in my dreams, people are just… taken over, by whatever it was that they are afraid of. They get buried alive again, they don’t escape the monster this time, et caetera. And I’m there, watching the whole time as it happens again.” Watching and wanting to scream and no sound coming out, wanting to flee and running in place a Red Queen’s race, wanting to help, to comfort them, to save them, and wanting to lick his lips and keep watching and see more more more, consume more more more, ingest and absorb and feast on more, more, more

Jon clears his throat again.

“I’ve tried, but I can’t do anything else than watch. I have to watch.”

“How many?” Georgie asks, and he should have expected it but it’s still a small additional stab that they all ask that. “Apart from me.”

“Gave us a list,” Melanie chimes in without looking up. “It’s a looooong one.”

“Yes, you… weren’t the first, nor the last.” He dislodges his sunglasses to rub the bridge of his nose. “Which is the point of all this, I suppose. I am… drawn to them — to statements, to people who have stories of experiencing the supernatural, who have been marked by it or lost a loved one to it. More and more, recently, and I’ve been, er, having trouble with that.” He doesn’t want to talk about it, in general and especially not to Georgie, to talk about the craving, the desire, the hunger for it, the peace and elation and comfort that it brings him. He doesn’t want to, and he is a coward, so he doesn’t. She probably suspects, anyway — she saw how he got about the damn tapes already, she has seen what it does to him and she has made it very clear what she thinks about it. “I have no control over the dreams,” he resumes bitterly, “so I don’t know how to make them stop. “Don’t think I can. They didn’t stop when I was in a coma.”

“Joining the cult does cut him off from you,” Melanie grants, “but I don’t exactly recommend that.”

Georgie’s face turns to look at her; Jon relocates his attention to her ear. “You had them too?”

“Oh, yeah. I even came back to give him a second statement. Really can’t say why I felt the need to.” Without moving her head, Melanie throws him a side glance, and Jon winces.

“So,” he moves on. “That’s… that’s it. That’s what has been happening to you for the past year. Although your case is a little… different. In my dream of you it’s empty, nothing happening? Just you and an anatomy room. Probably because…”

Georgie shifts suddenly, crossing her legs, and Melanie turns a page in a way that is somehow loud and brusque, and Jon falls silent instinctively even before he has fully formed the thought that, right; that’s a story Georgie had never told anyone else and wasn’t happy to, something meant to be kept a secret. Something she doesn’t want other people to know. Something he probably shouldn’t be talking about in detail with someone else in the room, even Melanie.

Calmly, Georgie finishes for him: “Because I’m a special case when it comes to fear.”

Because she has nothing to give him to consume and gorge himself on.

“… Yes.”

She gives a simple nod, still neutral. “Yeah, I don’t see anything else either in my dream. I’m just in that room, with you.”

“Which is pretty horrific already, mind you,” contributes the peanut gallery.

And the corners of Georgie’s lips twitch up. Just a little, like a sudden single ray of sunlight piercing through the cloud, just a thin small thing liable to be gone in an instant, but a reminder of the existence of light and warmth. “It’s not that bad,” she says. “Sometimes he shaves.”

Bashfully, Jon concedes: “I made some efforts for today,” but seeing her smile is more relieving than irksome. “Georgie, I’m… I’m so sorry. I did suspect that this was likely to happen if I took your statement, and I should have warned you. I’m sorry.”

“You’re doing it again,” she notes, unruffled.

He blinks. “Pardon?”

“You always say ‘sorry’ a lot, and then you run off and keep messing up, again and again. You’ve always been like that.” She takes a sip from her mug, calm and collected. “Melanie vouched for you, so I’m willing to give you another chance this time, but honestly, Jon, I don’t really care how you’re feeling if you’re not doing anything about all this.”

“I am! I’m trying!” he protests. “We’re — we’re looking for what can be done. That’s why I’m here, I came to see what can be done to help you.”

“Oh!” She raises her eyebrows and takes another sip. “Oh, that’s good to know! Because all I’ve heard so far is admittance and apologies. Which are great, don’t get me wrong, but not constructive.”

Jon straightens, which is something he and Georgie both know he does when he’s been caught being wrong and isn’t happy about it. He feels his body do it, tensing his limbs and raising his shoulders and tightening his fingers around his mug, and he sees Georgie watch him do it, and he does his best not to get too bloody defensive and irritated about it. Instead, he makes himself mentally rewind and review the conversation so far, and sure enough, finds that she is, of course, factually correct.

He lets out a sigh and deflates like a balloon. “I’m sor— urgh,” he catches himself, frustrated, and she lets out a short laughter, blinding flash passing between clouds. “Should I apologise for that too?” he groans. “Kind of a pathetic self-feeding loop.”

“If it makes you feel better,” she allows generously.

“But this is about you.”

“Okay, sure. I hear you, and I believe that you really believe that.”

He groans again.

“But I think it’s not. You’re not doing this for me. Or for any of the others. You’re doing it so you can feel better. Which isn’t a problem in itself,” she shrugs, “I don’t really care why you’re doing it so long as it gets done, just — I’m not going to pat your back and congratulate you. Apologies and fixing your mess, bare minimum.” She empties her mug, puts it down and grabs a cookie. “So, what are you going to do for... us?”

Jon exhales deeply and takes a sip of his tea as well. It’s not quite cold, still lukewarm. He keeps it close to his lips, a small and inadequate comfort but at least that.

“I… don’t know,” he admits. “Right now I’m just… adjusting. I am on a sort of enforced strike,” he scoffs. “The others are making sure I’m not in a position to harm more people until I hopefully get in control of it. There’s —” He sighs, once more; he’s so tired. “There’s another power I have developed, to simply know information out of nowhere, which can be, er, disturbing. So I am trying to get that in check as well.” Georgie is giving him the pointed blank look again, and he searches for a second before it occurs to him that he hasn’t actually stated: “I want to be in control of it,” and she relaxes minutely. “And then… then, I don’t know. I don’t believe there’s much that can be done. We’re looking… well, you’re right, mostly Melanie and the others have been looking, for ways to help you. But I’ve no idea what that may be.”

“Hence this visit.”

“Yes.”

Both hands around his mug, he chews his lip, and inhales before at long last giving himself a metaphorical kick in the arse and bringing his gaze up to finally meet hers.

It isn’t painful at all. Her eyes are like they’ve always been, not soft but no harder than ever; not accusatory or disappointed or angry, not piercing him or ignoring him, just watching him. She returns his stare and raises an eyebrow, and waits for him.

He clears his throat, awkwardly clears it again before he actually finds his voice, and says: “What do you need? Or want.”

She smiles. “Good start. Better.” She hands out her mug for him to refill. He does. “I don’t want or need anything from you, though. And I’m not really suffering from those dreams. All you could do for me would just be… to be a friend again. A good one. And so, not to do something I wouldn’t want my friend to do. If you can do that, then I’m good and you’re all right by me.”

He mulls over it.

“That’s still mostly about me, barely about you.”

She shrugs. “You’re not so important in my life that you can really impact it.”

“Aouch.”

“But fair.”

“But fair.” He sighs.

The corner of her lips rises again, barely perceptible, less of a flash and more soft light filtering through a lightening sky. “That it? Are we done with that, or are there any more dark confessions I absolutely have to hear about?”

“No, I think that’s about it. I’m done if you are.”

“Okay.” And this is when she truly relaxes, finally, leaning in deep into the loveseat, stretching her arms behind her head and unfolding her legs to rest her socked feet on the coffee table. “Well then! Any other atrocious topic to lighten the mood?”

Melanie slaps her book down on her thighs. At this point no one in the room pretends to be at all surprised at how little attention she was paying to it in reality. “Oooh yes, I’ve got one.”

Jon freezes in the process of refilling his mug of tea.

They don’t… they’ve never had the best of relationships, he and Melanie, but they’ve bonded over the last couple months. Of course there was the surgery and the Tesco incident, he understands her resentment towards him, but he thought they’d built a rapport. Surely she wouldn’t —

“Did you know that Jon has become a faithful follower of The Archers?”

Georgie puts her hands on her cheeks in a perfect impression of a Munch painting. “Reconsidering the extension of my forgiveness!”

Jon sighs explosively.

 


 

“Okay, I have one question, though,” Georgie says, later, watching Jon and Melanie duel for the Admiral’s affection with the weapons of back scratches and nose kisses. “Assuming the answer’s not too monsters-related.”

“Hm?” Jon can’t glance up at her, because Melanie is trying out a new strategy involving cheek tickling and it seems very effective.

“I’m not going to ask about the scars, but… what’s up with the sunglasses, you two?”

The battle pauses for a second and they look at each other over the fat pancake of purring cat; Jon’s elbow is in Melanie’s ribs but she has his right shin in a leglock. She smirks slyly and their faces are close enough that Jon can see the cat hairs around her mouth from ardent kitty-nuzzling.

“It is, technically, monsters-related,” Jon reminds her sternly.

Her grin widens and she tattles anyway: “It’s mostly just me making fun of him.”

Georgie just accepts this with a nonplussed, “Oh, okay.”

“I thought it was ‘team solidarity’.”

“Melanie’s always done tough love,” Georgie says, so casually that Jon can tell it’s on purpose just to make Melanie sputter in crimson-faced indignance. This has the secondary benefit of disturbing the Admiral, who darts away from the loud human and curls up on Jon’s lap instead, where he starts purring again, clearly proclaiming Jon’s victory. Jon’s bones vibrate along with him, soft and warm, soothing.

Martin should get a cat.

A little before it’s time to leave for Melanie’s appointment, Daisy texts that she’s at the corner of the street, so Melanie walks Jon there. At the door, while Jon is sitting on the floor to put his shoes back on and wrestling the laces from the Admiral, Georgie squats down next to him and lies an arm across his shoulders. “See you soon,” she says, and pulls him close to her just so, and he automatically tilts his head for her to lay a gentle kiss on his temple. Melanie makes a sound of abject disgust. Jon abandons his left shoe to the Admiral’s claws and wraps his arm around Georgie’s waist, pulls her close, briefly but warmly, inhales the familiar citrus scent of her body soap and shampoo. “Don’t be a stran—”

Georgina Barker.

She cackles — now that he thinks of it, this might have rubbed off from or on Melanie — and pushes him out of the door with a, “You’re welcome! Now run off!”

Please,” Melanie groans.

 


 

Daisy slides down the window of Basira’s car and nods sharply. “He behave?”

“Not at all, horrible afternoon, made me witness PDA.”

She kissed me,” Jon points out noncommittally.

“A betrayal I’ll never get over.”

“You know what I mean, King,” Daisy sighs.

“Yeah, yeah, no, he didn’t try to eat anyone and I’ll babysit him again, no problem.”

Daisy grunts and unlocks the passenger door, and Jon hides his relief as best he can as he climbs in.

They drive off and there are a few minutes of odd tense silence before Daisy comments, off-handedly: “Didn’t realise you were a thing.”

It takes Jon a good couple seconds to get over the utter bafflement of thinking she means Melanie, before he figures it out. “Oh, Georgie!” He sighs. “No, that was a long time ago. We’re — well, we’re friends again now. Much better idea.”

“Right,” Daisy says, and sags down a little against the backrest.

With the morbid curiosity that’s definitely going to get him killed one day, Jon notes that she seems relieved, too.

She winces when he asks (normally and with careful non-compelling wording). “Just… glad you guys didn’t bring her along just now.”

Right. That. Jon refrains a smile, having the feeling that it would get him a punch or a noogie again. “Wait, but you investigated her. Haven’t you met her before?”

Daisy shifts in her seat and does the thing again where she raises her shoulders and sinks her head into them, tucking her neck in protectively like a shy turtle. Eyes firmly on the road, she mumbles: “I didn’t… I didn’t realise it was her, at the time.”

Jon manages to behave himself for almost thirty seconds.

“… You didn’t realise that Georgina Barker, with a recording studio, old acquaintance of Jonathan Sims from the Magnus Institute, was Georgie Barker from the ghost podcast.”

“It was a hunt, all right!” she snaps loudly. “Wasn’t sleeping or thinking much.”

“Huh,” Jon says, and then, because apparently he still wants to die a little: “So you were actually a shit detecti—”

She punches him knuckles-first in the rib-hole without even looking.

 


 

Daisy doesn’t kill him, though, neither in the car nor when she walks him back to the flat a few hours later, as Melanie is indeed spending the evening with Georgie to have dinner and their own (Jon-less) them-time.

The street is quiet for a weekday, perhaps because the weather has cooled somewhat and the sky is grey, the light a little darker than it’s been at six in the evening for the past weeks. Might finally rain, Jon thinks distractedly.

“Working, then?” Daisy asks at the first street corner.

“Er, not that much. I did go through the Halloween backlog, but…”

She snorts. “I mean, is this working for you.”

“Oh!” It did seem a strange question coming from her. Despite her new job description, he’s not sure he’s seen her do any sort of work around the archive at all. “Yes, seems so.”

She grunts. There’s an oddly-timed pause, then she adds, gruffly: “Still trying?”

Jon’s eyes prickle and his brain screeches the sound of nails on a blackboard at the mere thought of never again getting to gnaw his way through the story of a new stranger and suck its bones clean, but he speaks over it: “Still trying.”

She nods and shoves her hands in the pockets of her leather jacket. “‘Kay,” she says.

“What about you?”

She hums. They’re reached the deserted riverbank and she looks across the water, thoughtfully. She’s definitely pulling off the tragic Romantic heroic figure, especially with how sickly underweight she still is.

“Both,” she says. Then: “I found her. Few days ago.”

Jon isn’t sure which of them stops walking first. Either way, they are both standing side by side, staring across the water in the pale grey summer evening light.

“Jess Tyrell,” he says. He doesn’t know, not supernaturally, but he can’t make himself make it sound like a question.

“Mmh.”

He doesn’t know what to say, what to ask when she’s not volunteering anything, what to offer if she’s not asking anything of him.

She exhales in a loud puff, teenage-like, and resumes walking, so he follows, in silence.

She only speaks up again when they reach the door of Martin’s flat: “Don’t forget the episode.”

“Of course not!” he mumbles, offended.

She swats the back of his head lightly and, he thinks, affectionately, and leaves without another word.

 


 

That evening, after The Archers and dinner, Jon sets up in the living room. He’s wrapped himself up in a fleece throw on the sofa to watch a Netflix documentary about the beef industry and he is vaguely thinking about what to make for tomorrow’s dinner (probably: not beef) when the door opens.

It opens because Martin opened it.

Martin strides in, and Jon almost jumps out of his skin, and doesn’t have the time to fully take in and process, one: Martin’s presence, sharp and vivid, two: Martin’s face, red-eyed and puffy, ravaged by tears, before Martin adds a third item to the list:

“Take off your clothes,” he says.

Jon freezes like the slabs of meat on the flat screen.

“Did you go somewhere today?” Martin asks incisively. He’s not yelling, just raising his voice enough to be heard over the telly, but it seems to drill through Jon’s ears.

“Yes? Georgie’s?” he hazards on auto-pilot, stunned. “Martin, what —”

Martin sniffs loudly. His nose is running, slightly deforming his voice. “She got a cat?”

“Yes?”

“Get off the couch and go get changed and chuck your clothes in the washing machine please.” He rubs his sleeve across his small, bloodshot eyes furiously, and Jon belatedly puzzles the pieces together.

“Oh God,” he flounders, fumbling to his feet and getting tangled in the fleece throw, “I’m so sorry, are you allergic?”

“How did you guess,” Martin deadpans, and all but shoves past him to pull off the coverings of the sofa, in a fit of sneezing.

Jon has a shower, just to be sure. When he gets out, in a fresh set of old pyjamas, Martin has disappeared again. The washing machine is full and its door open, waiting.

Jon guiltily finishes loading it up and starts the laundry, has an even guiltier nervous smoke at the kitchen window, puts away the night’s untouched extra dinner plate with no surprise.

He doesn’t dare go into Martin’s room tonight. He brings his blankets, thankfully uncontaminated (unconcatiminated?), to the stripped couch and bundles up there, and puts on the stupid paranormal investigation show for the rest of the rainy night.

The extra mug of morning tea goes ignored, too.

 


 

Weather-wise, though, the new day is lovely. At least, as much as Jon can judge from the morning walk. It’s Martin’s weekly day at the Institute, and he squints in the cheerful sunlight, his eyes, Jon thinks, a little small and red still. When Jon brings himself to ask if he’s all right, Martin sniffs loudly, and the silence falls again for the rest of the walk.

But for the world outside Jon’s little bubble and dark office, it is a lovely day. A couple hours later, Georgie sends him a picture of the Admiral sumptuously stretching in a ray of sunlight.

Georgina Barker, 10:11am
Sun’s out guns out
How’s it going

Sent 10:12am
He’s beautiful, give him a belly rub for me. Turns out Martin is allergic to cats.

Georgina Barker, 10:15am
Oh dear. he ok?

Sent 10:16am
Yes, but he wasn’t amused. Can’t blame him.

Georgina Barker, 10:16am
Oh no.

Georgina Barker, 10:18am
Are u banned from cat

Sent 10:20am
I don’t think so. It should be fine, I just need to be more careful.

Sent 10:24am
Sorry, context: I am being quarantined in his flat.

Georgina Barker, 10:24am
…Ok

Sent 10:25am
So I have been inconveniencing him quite a lot lately.

Georgina Barker, 10:26am
Jon, you’re a wonderful housemate.
When u’re not chased by mannequins.
Or cops.
Or monsters.
Melanie said sth about doors?
Etc.

Sent 10:29am
(Thank you.)

Sent 10:32am
It’s just that

Georgina Barker, 10:38am
?

Sent 10:40am
Nevermind, just talking about me again.

Georgina Barker, 10:40am
Nah this falls under friend stuff, you’re good
Spill, Sims.
Spill the beaaaaaaaaaaans

Sent 10:43am
This isn’t exactly a mutual decision, letting me stay at his place, so this is just… adding to the pile.

Georgina Barker, 10:43am
Oh?

Sent 10:44am
He’s not very happy with me being here.
Can't blame him.

Sent 10:50am
I just didn’t expect to miss him even more while living with him.

Is that the point, he finds himself wondering. Martin’s involvement with the Lonely has been hitting Jon hard, he’s aware of that, but is he feeding Martin himself, now? Lukas property, after all.

Georgina Barker, 10:51am
Oh No.

Sent 10:54am
?

Georgina Barker, 10:54am
Nothin’

Georgina Barker, 10:55am
Dw abt it

Sent 10:56am
Well NOW I'm worried????

Georgina Barker, 10:56am
Its fine

Sent 10:57am
Georgie

Georgina Barker, 10:58am
Its fine never you mind here have Admiral booty

Sent 10:58am
Georgie

Sent 11:59am
Bootilicious.

Georgina Barker, 11:00am
I'm screencapping this to Melanie

He snorts and puts his phone down.

Speaking of cursed knowledge and morbid fascination, he’s curious to hear Daisy’s prognostics on exactly how the horribly ill-advised teacher-student romance is going to go south after the recent developments, but she hasn’t shown all morning.

He asks, distractedly, into the dark of the office, and when Basira doesn’t reply immediately he leans out in his seat to check that, yes, she is still here; sprawled flat on her stomach on his office floor as usual, with a book held up straight in front of her.

“Basira?”

She turns a page and says without any particular intonation: “Meeting with Elias.”

He almost falls out of his seat, and the fact that she doesn’t even react to mock him only reinforces the dizzying feeling of wrongness. “What, alone? Without — without telling me?” She turns a page and emphatically doesn’t otherwise move. “Shouldn’t we be worried about that?” he insists, desperate.

“She said she knows what she’s doing and not to worry,” Basira recites in a monotone.

“Same question!”

Basira sighs. Jon stares at her in wait, tense to the point of an ache, and after a pause, she lets her book drop over her face and takes a deep breath under the tent thus formed. It’s very slow and very long and by the end of it it changes into a small, high-pitched, miserable sound.

“She told me not to worry,” she repeats, muffled by her book, a little choked.

The god of knowledge and forced confessions really ought to reconsider its claim on Jon, because these days he never knows what to possibly say.

 


 

A little before noon, the shadow of Daisy’s still-frail silhouette splashes into the rectangle of light on the floor of the darkened office. She knocks on the frame of the open door and says, “Hey.”

“Hey,” Jon and Basira reply, in an awkwardly attemptedly-casual, out-of-synch chorus.

There’s still a painful, throbbing pause, and then Daisy snorts, quietly, self-aware. “Right. Think we’d better make this a team meeting again,” she says.

Basira takes a deep inhale again and Jon gets the feeling she would bury her head into the ground instead, if she could, but she puts her book down and pulls herself to her feet, slowly and painstakingly and without asking for anyone’s help.

Daisy has even caught Martin again. He’s silent and standing to the side against a wall, by the door, as though just waiting to leave, but he’s there, which is — a bad sign, actually, and Basira catches her breath again at the sight of him and lets it out slow and controlled while she carefully sits down at the bare desk-slash-meal-table. Still, Jon considers asking Daisy how she does that.

Daisy waits for Jon and Melanie to take their seats, before walking around to the other side and settling in across from them. “All right,” she commences. And just that — just the way she’s sitting, opposite from them but facing them, serious and uncomfortable but relaxed, just that single phrase, her voice, how it’s not shaking, how completely void of any hesitation she is — is enough to reassure Jon. Basira had called her solid, he remembers, a fixed point, and that’s a good way to describe it. Whatever Daisy has to tell them isn’t going to be pleasant, but if she isn’t worried, it’s nothing they cannot handle with her on their side.

Calmly, like business, Daisy lays down: “So, as you know, I’ve been looking for Jon’s victims.” As expected, Jon’s stomach sinks. “The sailor’s gonna be hard, obviously, and the janitor has changed jobs, so I’ve been focusing on Jess Tyrell first. The one from the tape. Last week, I found her.”

No one moves. More accurately, everyone very purposely does not move.

“Wasn’t exactly thrilled to see me, but she agreed to talk because she, quote, ‘didn’t have much left to lose’,” Daisy continues imperturbably. “Still having the nightmares, panic attacks and everything. Impeding her day-to-day life. Can’t go underground, not great with small closed rooms, lucky when she goes a day without spiralling; lost her job, can’t keep working in her field, can’t find something else outside of it. Can barely function in general, to be honest.” Her rhythm has remained casual and easy, she isn’t out of breath, but she marks a pause here all the same. Her gaze drifts off into the distance, her left hand twitching up from the table into a vague gesture, as if searching for her words. “So I figured I’d mention the…” With her index finger, she traces a tiny circle in the air, over and over. “The loophole.”

The pause this time feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room, as if simply alluding to the Buried has summoned it around them, heavy, stifling, silencing. For a long handful of seconds, all that can be heard is the low carefree hum of the tape recorder sitting on a nearby cabinet.

Finally, Melanie utters, “Uhhh,” like gasping for breath, and the tension breaks.

“Excuse me, are you talking about having her hired?” Jon bristles.

Daisy shrugs and shifts in place, crossing her arms on the table. “It’s not that bad? When you’re already tangled up in it, anyway. Stops the nightmares.”

“This isn’t — I thought the idea was to help them get away.”

“Well, when you find out how to do that, let me know.” She shrugs again. “Not saying it’s an ideal solution, but — you know, her life is already in shambles right now and she needs a job.”

“Oh, yes!” Melanie laughs bitterly. Her voice is cold but her face is slowly turning red. “Sure, great idea! Let’s reach out to someone who’s been traumatised, who’s plagued by all this shit daily to the point she can’t function anymore, and bring her into the fold! Sell your soul to the Magnus Institute! What could go wrong for this one, worked great for us!”

“I explained what it entails,” Daisy placates, still unshakeable and unflinching. “She asked for details. Thinking about it. It’s not done yet but if it is, it’ll be an informed decision.”

“For the record,” Melanie hisses, “I am really not fond of the history of not-ideal informed decisions around here.”

Daisy nods. “Fair. Hers to make this time, though.”

Melanie throws her arms up in the air before folding them up against her chest, shoving her hands under her armpits and sinking into her chair, in repressed but obvious, buzzing fuming.

Jon pushes his glasses up on his forehead and drags his hands over his face.

Barely louder than a whisper, he starts: “That’s not what I…”, and when he’s too tired to finish, Daisy says, “I know,” and her voice hasn’t changed but it is soothing all the same. To be told this and believe it, to know that she knows, she really does, she knows that’s not what he wanted. Jon manages to force himself to breathe.

On his left, Basira finally speaks, quietly. “And you went to Elias and, what, he just said sure, he’d hire her?”

“‘Course not. Eye’s already got her, why would he cut off a food source.” Daisy is silent for a bit. “But he was open to negotiating.”

Jon doesn’t see but still feels Basira tense up beside him.

He spreads his fingers to look at Daisy through them, but her own eyes are fixed on Basira as she says: “He’ll hire her if I start doing his dirty work again.”

The room is silent for a long while as Basira takes a deep, deep breath, purses and chews on her lips. She takes her own sunglasses off her closed eyes and puts her face in her hands, and they all hold their tongues, waiting for her, as if no one else’s reactions are relevant before they’ve heard hers.

Daisy waits, elbows on the desk, still and silent, just looking at her, peaceful and patient as love.

Eventually, Basira curses softly, muffled in her palms; starts saying something, stops; pulls herself back up and straight, takes her hands off her face and puts them down, in tight fists but just lying on the table, calm and controlled, and only then does she start speaking again.

“So what was the point,” she starts. “You do that, it’s all just — back to where we were last year.”

With the difference of a higher body count. Jon doesn’t say it.

“It’s not,” Daisy states firmly. “Not the same at all. I’m in control, and I’m choosing to do this.” She moves in, leans forwards across the desk, her arms unfolding and inching over, but Basira doesn’t move and Daisy doesn’t reach her. “I’ve stopped. Jon’s stopped. This’ll help.”

“It’ll help Elias, and whatever… machinations, manipulations and terror pyramid schemes he’s plotting in the background.”

“I know. ‘M not stupid.”

“Oh yeah? Am I, then? He’s just toying with us, he doesn’t even need you, he’ll push you back into the Hunt just to see how low he can get you before you snap!”

“I know,” Daisy repeats. Her voice doesn’t quiver, doesn’t rise. “And I won’t. I’m prepared for him to try, but I know what I’m doing. I decided that it’ll be worth it if it helps someone.”

One person,” Basira says, like pulling her own teeth out.

Melanie makes a little choking sound.

Daisy doesn’t flinch. “Yeah. I want to do it.”

Basira crosses her arms and tilts back into her seat, in apparent reflex, and just barely remembers in time not to actually lean her wounded back against the backrest of her chair. She’s chewing her lip again. “It’s just not…” She shifts once more in a way that looks very much like she both wants and doesn’t want to turn to Jon. “That you have to do this again because of,” and she stops herself again.

“It’s not,” Daisy repeats, crisply. “I’m not doing this for him.”

“Still his fault there’s a need for it.” Basira’s voice is bitter and thrumming with controlled emotion. Jon can’t tell for sure whether it is frustration, anger, despair. Perhaps a mixture of all of these.

“I just want to help her.” Slowly, and quiet suddenly, so quiet, Daisy adds, one word at a time: “You don’t know what it’s like to be trapped, and crushed, and… choked, and when it stops knowing it’ll come back, again and again again, and each time thinking, really thinking, for sure, that it’ll never stop and you’ll never be able to get out again.”

Jon does. Jon knows, both of those experiences, and many more.

He also knows

“It’s easier to help her than the people you’ve hurt.”

It comes out of his mouth like crackling spit, hurting his throat and lips like barbed wire, scorching like lit gasoline. Daisy jumps and looks at him with wide wild eyes.

“You’re ready to bravely sacrifice yourself to save a stranger, buy yourself some peace of mind, but facing what you’ve done is another matter.”

Jon,” Basira snaps. She hasn’t put her sunglasses back on, and she is glaring at him with dark contempt and anger and sorrow and fear that his own eyes catch and latch on. “Shut the fuck up.”

“And you are aware of that,” he continues, merciless, painful, blessedly easy. “You both are.”

“Jon, I swear to God.”

“But you’re not doing anything about that. Why?

“Okay, everyone calm down,” Melanie says loudly, rising, the legs of her chair rattling horribly against the hardwood floor. “Jon, shut up.”

It stops like turning off a tap. Jon blinks.

In the tense silence, Daisy is the first one to speak again. “My… past preys,” she says, slowly and cautiously. She hasn’t moved at all. “Are mostly dead. Few ones that aren’t, are dangerous. So. So yeah, I. I’ll help the innocents.”

Jon finally unclenches his jaw. His tongue catches the metallic taste of blood. “Thank you,” he whispers.

“Okay, so no one here’s listening to anything I’ve been saying,” Daisy cracks.

“I heard you. Thank you still.”

She sighs. Basira has started tapping her fingers along her arm, at an anxiety-inducing fast tempo.

“Anyway. This is just a public announcement. If Jess Tyrell decides she wants to sign up here, I’m doing it, meeting adjourned.”

Without moving from her seat, Basira declares: “We’re not done talking about this.”

Patiently, softly: “I know.”

Basira nods, once, short and sharp, and brusquely stands and marches out the main door. Her gait is stiff and strained, much faster than she usually walks, clearly too fast for her comfort.

Jon stands as well, reflexively, but Daisy calls: “No, let her walk it off. Leave her some space.”

Jon’s gaze catches that of Martin, still standing silently by the door, hands behind his back. His face is blank from any expression but he holds Jon’s unshielded eyes, until they sting in the artificial light and Jon has to look down and rub his eyelids, put his sunglasses back on. Martin barely blinks.

At the table, Daisy sighs and slumps back into her chair. There is a long uncomfortable silence, during which Melanie, still standing, fidgets, picks up, clicks, and drops a ballpoint pen, huffs, mumbles a few ‘Great. Great, great, great,’ under her breath, and eventually checks her phone out of sheer need to do something. She stares at her screen for a bit.

“In completely unrelated news,” she announces, sliding her phone across the table in disgust, “more reasons Jon needs to be sent to jail.”

Jon rolls his eyes.

Daisy peers at the screen, and chuckles, lightly but like birdsong after the battle. Martin unsticks himself from the wall and comes over to have a look as well; he stares expressionlessly for a full second before letting out a little snort and handing the phone back to Melanie.

“Let’s go get lunch,” Daisy sighs in conclusion. “Also, Jon, we’ve got to unpack that episode.”

With an echoing dejected sigh, Jon nods. When he glances hopefully from her direction back to where Martin was standing a second ago, Martin’s gone.

“I hate all of you here,” Melanie grumbles, but she orders a basket of samosas and gives Daisy the ones with meat.

 


 

That evening, the silent walk back with Martin feels less like a cold shoulder and more like sympathy. At least, Jon thinks so. There’s no real indication either way, technically; but he is grateful for it all the same.

He makes a simple veggie stir-fry with rice for dinner, and pointedly still leaves a plate out.

When he pops by the kitchen on his way to Martin's room to put it in the fridge, it has disappeared, and the dishwasher is running.

Chapter Text

On Saturday, Jon notices the apples are looking tired, so he follows Elanora Sims’s life-long adage and makes an apple pie.

His grandmother used to live by the concept of making good things out of the bad. This generally manifested in such ways as it’s not that bad and no point complaining, not always with resounding success. When Jon was seven, he remarked that it was just another wording of the phrase when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, to which she sniffed and replied that wording matters, Jonathan. Elanora Sims had nothing if not precise opinions.

Anyway.

When little Jonathan tore the hems of a pair of trousers on some ill-advised adventure, she turned them into shorts, when the shorts ripped she cut them into patches for the knees of another pair of traumatised trousers, and when the apples were about to go bad, she made apple pie.

He doesn’t remember her recipe, of course, but he has Wi-Fi (currently working very well). He searches through the images, clicks on a picture that looks similar to his blurry reminiscence, ends up on a baking blog which he scrolls through attentively. The writer is a mother of two and tries to avoid using too much sugar. At the time of the article, her youngest was sick at home, so she made him a special dessert, adapting her own grandmother’s recipe. She goes on to recount a stirring childhood story, in surprisingly lyrical prose. It doesn’t… do anything, on a sustaining level, but it is quite a pleasant read in its own right.

Jon doesn’t have any specific memory of eating apple pie with his grandmother, at least nothing like a striking cinematic heartwarming scene of the young orphan and the sadly smiling elderly widow sitting around the golden-lit kitchen table on autumn afternoons (she wasn’t exactly the smiling sort, in general); just the vague memory that this was something that happened sometimes, when the neighbour’s tree had an overabundance of fruit and Elanora hadn’t had a vicious argument with him over the colour of his fence too recently. Jon thinks he was invited to pick the apples, one time. (Or perhaps there hadn’t been an invitation.)

He finally reaches the recipe, checks the very simple ingredients list. It takes him a minute to locate the obviously never-used rolling pin he once saw in the early days of getting acquainted with the kitchen (lower drawer next to the oven), a couple more to find a tin pie dish (back of a cabinet), and then he’s started.

He’s put on a podcast for background noise (the laptop isn’t giving any signs of pulling the no-sound malfunction again so far, fingers crossed), but he’s barely hearing the words. He’s not sure if the baking zone is more anchoring or allowing him to slip away, fall into the flow of mixing and kneading the dough, rolling the pin, the weight of the knife and of the round fruit in his palm, the yielding flesh of the apples appearing under his hands and smooth blade, the crisp sour scent invading his nostrils and mixing with the cinnamon, the sticky juice and granulated sugar and clouds of flour and softened butter coating his fingers in turn. He is here, so very much here, hasn’t felt this solid in a while, truly inhabiting his body, even as his mind slithers out and flutters around the high ceiling of the kitchen.

Somehow, he does, at one point, look up searching for a familiar frail silhouette, finding on his lips the words, ‘Grandmother, pass me the sugar.’ But there isn’t, of course, anyone else in the kitchen, only Georgie’s voice warmly droning on.

He grabs the sugar himself (but doesn’t use too much of it).

 


 

He sits down in the living room with yet another of the movies that came out during his coma while the pie cools. As a child, he would always try to eat his grandmother’s baking right out of the oven, and sometimes even succeed, but adulthood is learning that pastry does indeed taste better when you give it time for the sugar to solidify and the filling to set. Besides, it can be warmed back up.

Melanie was excited to hear him rant about this one, but he’s enjoying the movie so far, aside from the few minutes he had to pause in distress over the cat. Visually, it’s lovely, and the monster romance is sweet in its own weird way, although it still had to go and put in the obligatory sex scene. Jon yawns.

When he opens his eyes again, Martin is there.

He is hovering in the doorway, just at the edge of Jon’s vision, silhouetted against the bright light of the corridor. His outlines are fuzzy, and Jon isn’t sure if there’s a supernatural reason to that or just the fact that Martin is standing in the light and right past the frame of his glasses, but he doesn’t dare move or look at him more directly.

“Special occasion?” Martin asks.

Normally, like a normal everyday running-into-your-flatmate situation.

Jon keeps his eyes fixed on the TV screen, though he’s not processing what’s going on anymore, focused on forcefully holding his eyelids back from blinking. “Hm?” he says, in a carefully distracted tone. His voice is a little rough, his throat suddenly parched.

“You bought pie.”

“Oh,” Jon replies. It occurs to him that he is using the strategy of not looking directly at a timid small animal in order to avoid scaring it off, not unlike how the protagonist in the movie acts with the creature. “No, I made it.”

After a pause, Martin says: “What?”, and only then does Jon allow himself to glance up, nonchalantly. Martin’s hair is frizzing and dark from moisture, likely just out of the shower. He is wearing light grey silk pyjamas that look more expensive than the TV screen. There’s a mug of tea in his hand and a puzzled expression on his heat-flushed face.

“I made apple pie?” Jon repeats, not sure what the problem is.

Martin looks even more taken aback. “Why?”

Jon blinks. “What do you mean?”

“What do you mean, you made apple pie? What’s going on?

“Why not?” Jon stutters back. “I just felt like it?”

“You just felt like making a pie?”

A few years ago, Jon worked out that one reason he was so annoying as a child wasn’t, exactly, that he was always right about everything, but that he expected to be. He never second-guessed this, never fathomed that what seemed evident to him might not be to everyone else. Only in university did he start questioning it and first realised that other people were often dissatisfied with his actions, answers, or just his tone. Adulthood came with a floating sense that he was missing something, that his natural instincts weren’t the adequate responses everyone around him demanded. It wasn’t his self-confidence he lost, exactly (he still didn’t think that he was wrong), but rather the blind trust in other people that they would be able to follow and understand him, suddenly gone as though he’d forgotten and left behind a piece of luggage in the train from Bournemouth to Oxford.

Which isn’t to say no one was ever able to understand him again. Aside from his grandmother, Georgie was one of the first, but through the years Jon did find some more of those precious special people and made sure to cling to them. Tim and Sasha were (well, Sasha must have been, though after she was changed Jon couldn’t hold a conversation with her without that creeping feeling of uneasy confusion crawling its way up his back and peeking over his shoulder again). Elias, too, of course; unfortunately. Daisy, since the coffin.

And Martin, sometimes — not at first, not always, but every so often, in sudden bursts of shared baring and crystal clarity, when hiding together from a living hive in the safe room or joking unselfconsciously in the office, short moments when Martin stepped out from behind the shield of polite niceness and Jon felt seen to the core of his bones.

Not right now. Right now, it’s that faintly nauseous feeling again, that this is a trick question, but there’s no other answer Jon can think of giving than just the plain, self-evident, what’s-wrong-with-that truth: “... Yes?”

Martin snorts. “What, you just do that? You just know how to make apple pie?”

“Well, it-it’s not difficult,” Jon tries, and grabs his laptop, pulls up the recipe again.

There is a pause, during which Jon is just floundering in the absence of any idea of what’s going to happen, and then Martin, miraculously, steps into the darkened living room. His socked feet (fuzzy pink socks, with a hole on the right big toe) making no sound on the floor, he walks over and comes closer — not too close, slinking around the sofa, keeping the backrest between them, but casually, as if it’s only normal. And it only makes sense, Jon supposes; there’s nothing exceptional about Martin setting foot in his own living room. He probably does in fact walk around his own flat every day. He just doesn’t do it in Jon’s presence, or at least, not in a way that Jon can perceive.

Martin puts a hand on the top of the backrest and leans down a little to look at the dimmed screen, squinting, and Jon holds his breath and wills himself not to stare at Martin’s curled fingers next to his face. He focuses instead on scrolling down the page and keeping a snail’s pace, because Martin’s never been a fast reader. (Jon used to get so angry about it, and at the amount of spelling mistakes in his notes despite his claim of an academic degree, until the time Sasha — was it Sasha? — asked, casually but gently, if perhaps he was dyslexic, and Martin shrugged and said it wasn’t like he had money to spare for an assessment anyway, and then he never brought it up again but Jon never quite felt like voicing another complaint.)

Martin’s quiet breathing pauses and he snorts again, and protests: “But I didn’t have crust.”

“Made it.”

Martin tears his eyes away from the laptop screen to fix them on Jon, and the sudden direct eye contact without dark lenses plus the confusion of the entire exchange is definitely giving Jon a mounting feeling of generalised anxiety, as if somehow he has committed a grievous mistake, like using his grandmother’s boar bristle hairbrush to groom the neighbour’s cat. Martin doesn’t look angry, though, just… genuinely bewildered.

So Jon tries to explain. “Flour, butter, sugar for a pie…” He gestures helplessly. “It’s not hard? Georgie liked to bake during exam sessions, it, it’s a good way to manage stress, and after you’re done, you’ve got something nice for tea.”

Martin’s face twitches and he makes a little sound, though he catches both before Jon can decipher the emotion behind them. It’s a lot, though, comparatively to what Jon has seen of him in the last few months. He looks at the screen again, frowning and chewing his upper lip, as if a world of possibilities is suddenly rolling out before his eyes.

“… So it’s edible?”

“Yes, it should have cooled enough by now. Do you...” Jon bites his lip as well, but Martin isn’t looking at him anymore and doesn’t appear to see it. “Do you want some?”

Martin doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t say no, and he asked, so — so Jon slowly, carefully gets up and leaves for the kitchen. He doesn’t hear Martin’s footsteps behind him, and doesn’t dare turn around to check; just clings to the hope. The pie is sitting on the counter, immaculate, golden and brown and still a little fragrant, and Jon goes to take out a knife and two small plates and holds his breath before turning around, and Martin’s there, and still there when Jon blinks a few times.

He stays at the door, watches Jon cut him a slice, takes the offered plate in his free hand, with a delayed and clipped “Thanks,” and leaves, carefully, with his tea and pie. Which isn’t much, objectively, Jon tells himself, which is just being polite, which doesn’t mean anything at all. He fixes himself a cup of tea, since there’s hot water left in the kettle, and goes back to the living room with it and the rest of the pie and a stupid giddy smile and has to rewind a good ten minutes of the movie because he stopped following from the moment Martin showed up, and then he has to do it again because he still can’t focus, and then Martin reappears.

He pads to the coffee table quietly, as if to avoid disturbing the movie which Jon’s brain has already tuned out again, and wordlessly points at the pie, then his empty plate.

“Sure!” Jon lets escape, a little too fast and enthusiastically, but Martin doesn’t react.

Martin cuts himself a second slice, tugs it onto his little plate, and then absconds again like a skittish stray cat hiding away to eat — but before he disappears, quiet and and half-muffled, his back turned, he mumbles: “It’s really good.”

It really is.

So, yes, Jon is still grinning all the way as he brings the leftovers to the Institute the next day, only to be met with, once again, generalised shock and surprise.

Well: technically, only shock and surprise from Melanie, but so much of it it’s rather insulting.

“I cannot believe this,” she rambles, gesturing with grabby hands as he cuts her a slice. “What the hell. Jonathan Sims, head monster of the Magnus Institute, making us apple pie.”

“I am hardly the head monster,” he snaps. “Wait, sorry, I put butter in it.”

“Butter’s fine. I’m too morbidly curious to pass up trying this, anyway.”

“It’s delicious,” Daisy placidly informs her. She’s already licking her fingers clean of her own portion. Jon’s heart swells with warm pride. “The house-husband life really agrees with him.”

“Damn him.”

“Not a husband either,” he groans, deflating. “Basira?”

She is back this morning, though sullen, and has been eyeing the pie with bemused suspicion. After a few seconds of obvious silent internal conflict, she eventually accepts the slice Jon offers her. Gingerly, she takes a bite, chews slowly, and finally admits, quietly, around a mouthful: “It’s pretty good.”

It is unclear whether that’s a factor in her willingness to continue sharing Jon’s office with him, after the recent developments.

There is a vague tension in the air, unspoken apprehension, but it’s all in all a normal day until, a little after lunch, Daisy gets a text and steps out. She doesn’t mention it, but neither does she particularly hide it; and in the same way, no one remarks on it, but everyone watches her go. Basira’s face is drawn and tight.

Melanie somehow manages to make a point out of going out for groceries without taking Jon along, but she still tosses him a new pack of Silk Cuts when she’s back.

That afternoon, there is something wrong in Jon’s passive sense of the Institute, something irregular and changed in the tapestry of it, something taken like one more rib from his chest. He tosses and turns for an hour on the cot before he finally falls asleep.

He wakes up without having seen Jess Tyrell in the collapsed tunnel of her dream.

Daisy hasn’t returned by the time Melanie escorts him back home.

That night, sitting against the wall of Martin’s bedroom and staring at his sleeping scowling face in the dark, Jon checks on the Institute. It’s only a little past midnight and Basira is lying on her stomach on the floor of the office, reading on her phone (lowest luminosity and blue-light filter). She’s the only one in the Archives, but Jon can tell the difference in the absences; Melanie has gone down in the tunnels to sleep already, while Daisy simply still isn’t in the Institute at all. And so, Basira is waiting.

 


 

Jon knows Daisy still hasn’t come back even before Melanie brings him in on Tuesday. Basira doesn’t react when he walks into the office and barely cracks a word all morning. At noon, when Melanie tries to suggest they all go out to lunch together, since Basira has now recovered enough to walk longer distances and sit without much problem, she just grunts and doesn’t move nor look up from her book.

“Come on, Basira,” Melanie coaxes.

“You two go,” she mutters. “I’ll eat here.”

“Basira,” Melanie repeats, not quite gently, but quietly. “Let’s not… let’s not isolate ourselves.”

The silence is short, but it tenses, thickens, and Jon clamps his teeth together knowing what’s coming because it’s right — “Daisy,” Basira says, tightly, “is alone out there right now.”

“Yeah, well, she’s coming back. No point opening a wide door to big ole Mister Lonely again in the meantime.”

“Lukas is gone,” Basira retorts, back to monotone. “Barely did a thing when he was around.”

Melanie falls silent, throws a quick look to Jon, which he… appreciates. He still isn’t exactly keen on talking about it, but it’s probably wiser to let Basira know, though, just… in case, and this is, if not a good time, a time for putting it out there. “Martin is one,” he confesses quietly. “A Lukas, by blood. He’s… very much in tune with the Lonely for himself.”

Basira doesn’t react at all at first, just letting the silence fill the room again, which in itself feels heavy and accusatory enough that Jon is wincing even before she finally looks up and stares at him, then at an uncomfortably fidgeting Melanie. But then she just — sighs, and shrugs, and returns to her book. “Right, well. ‘S not like he’s around here much either, anyway.”

“The Lonely isn’t necessarily externally inflicted by someone else,” Jon insists. He’s picking nervously at the scabs of the scar on his forearm, he’s aware of it but he can’t stop. “We do it to ourselves.” She doesn’t react, still staring at her book even though she clearly isn’t reading it, her eyes still and her face blank in defeated apathy. “Basira.” It’s complicated, between the two of them, between unasked-for and ungiven forgiveness and life debts, and he doesn’t want to cash in on any of those, but they’ve crawled through too much to give in now. “Please.”

“Come on,” Melanie whispers in echo.

It seems to last eons and millenia, the waking of a stone colossus, the movement of a mountain, although it must be only a handful of seconds until finally, with a great shudder, she breaks the inertia and starts to stand up, slowly, with great pains still.

“Okay,” she mumbles. “Lunch. Sure,” and Melanie and Jon exhale.

 


 

Over a full table of shared dishes of Chinese, Basira groans: “It’s just, she says she’ll be okay and she texts me stuff like ‘Trust me’, and I want to, but how the hell am I gonna know when she isn’t?”

“I’ll know,” Melanie says through a mouthful of veggie spring rolls. “I’ll tell you.”

They look at her. Paused with a wonton in front of his mouth, Jon repeats: “You’ll know.”

“Yeah, uhm.” She finishes and licks her lips. “Back before she went in the coffin, when I was also — well. She felt… a bit too close to home.”

“But she’s Hunt,” Jon points out, automatically. “I mean, the Hunt and the Slaughter are quite similar, but they’re not the same thing.”

“Similar enough to pick up on each other and clash, apparently.” She laughs, suddenly, short and crisp and not at all amused. “You might have noticed, we didn’t exactly get along at the time.”

“I assumed she was throwing a fit over the idea of you and I banging,” Basira deadpans.

Jon chokes on the wonton and the noxious urge to know whether that’s a hypothetical or a fact. Neither of them even blinks or expresses any pity for him; Melanie does hit him on the back, but only after a couple seconds and quite a bit harder than warranted.

“Anyway, you’re,” Basira starts, and falters awkwardly. “You’re, you know, not… anymore.”

“Mm-hmm. Not since two assholes decided to drill into my leg in my sleep.”

“Would it still work?”

Melanie clicks her chopsticks together a few times, as though to the rhythm of her thinking. Jon tries not to gnash his teeth at the sound, but Basira is twitching too. “It’s not like it’s completely gone. The bullet is, and I can hear myself think again, but. Well. I may not feel it quite as... strongly, now, but I know I’ll still be able to tell if she gets like that again.”

“What does it feel like?” Jon asks, of course, before he can help himself.

“Smell of blood,” Melanie replies instantaneously.

Jon’s appetite dissipates in a millisecond, and then Basira is sending him a glare darker than the Church’s sun over her lenses and her fist is closing around her chopsticks and Melanie is looking vaguely ill.

“I’m — I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry.”

“I would have said anyway,” Melanie mumbles, dejected but brave. “It’s fine.”

“Thought we were acting on it being not fine,” Basira stresses.

“It’s an accident. No harm done.”

“We can’t afford accidents — Daisy can’t…” She stops, carefully sets the chopsticks down and pushes her tiny plate aside, and crosses her arms on the table and puts her face down in them.

A few seconds pass in silence as Melanie and Jon try to mutely converse without panicking too much over her head, but she’s not… she doesn’t appear to be crying. Her breathing seems a little loud and laboured, but she isn’t making another sound and her shoulders aren’t shaking. Her sunglasses are peeking, jostled and bent, from the crook of her elbow; Melanie removes them, very delicately, careful not to touch her, to stop them digging into her face, and folds them on the table beside her arm.

Basira lets him, and simply declares, after another few seconds: “Fuck.”

Melanie and Jon exchange a solemn nod. Melanie goes for another serving of tofu soup and Jon refills everyone’s rice.

A minute or so later, Basira grumbles in her arms something like: “It’s like the goddamn goat problem here.”

Jon gives it another few seconds, wipes the grit from his weary eyes under his own sunglasses. That doesn’t help clear up what ruminants she’s talking about. “Pardon?”

She moves her head aside to free up her mouth. She is indeed not crying, but looking so very, very drained. “The boat with the wolf and the goat and the cabbage. You need to cross over but the boat can only take one thing at a time, and if you leave them alone, goat’ll eat the cabbage and the wolf will eat the goat.”

“Ah, yes. But you can leave the wolf with the cabbage.”

“Yeah. So you have to go back and forth,” she sighs like exhaling the weight of the world, “ferrying things across and taking them back before something eats something else.”

“Can’t the wolf go vegetarian?” asks Melanie tartly.

“No. In the riddle, you can’t even let it look after the goat for a bit every so often.” She falls silent for a moment again.

“But you can leave the wolf alone on the shore for a while,” Jon notes, despite not being sure whether that’s comfort or just more depressing.

Basira laughs weakly. “So far. Still. Getting a bit sick of juggling all these goats.”

Jon unfortunately doesn’t foresee that improving in the future, near or far. Not to mention that the wolf is now working for, what. A hyena. A carrion bird. A slaughterhouse or a meat-processing factory. And they have no idea what its next big scavenging plot is.

But after another minute, Basira sits up again and finishes the meal with them.

 


 

Daisy is sprawled on the sofa when they come back from lunch. “Hey,” she says, casually, and looking fundamentally unchanged. Jon glances at Melanie, but she isn’t wrinkling her nose or giving any other hint of picking up unsavoury scents.

There is a notable pause during which none of them say anything, entirely because Basira says nothing, before Melanie unsubtly takes the reins and replies: “Hey.”

“Hey,” Jon echoes. He’s still having to choke down a Thank you every time he looks at her pale tired face and she would kick his foot from under him, so instead he says: “There’s a new Chinese place on the corner.”

“Oh?”

“They’ve got good vegetarian options and they do take-out,” Melanie adds, and then she does the uncomfortable fidgeting thing, shifting all of her weight on her good leg. “Uhm, Rosie said Jess Tyrell started this morning.”

“Mm.”

“Said she looked cute?” Melanie volunteers, surreally. “Not very smiley, but, uh, I think she said, ‘looks like a good one’.”

“Mm. Well, Rosie’s a keen judge of character,” Daisy says with a serious nod. Jon has never seen her talk with Rosie. “Anyway, I’m starving, I’m stepping out for lunch too.”

“I’ll go with you,” Basira pipes up, without any particular tone. “I’ll have a coffee or something.”

Jon lets out his breath, even as Melanie frowns and fusses: “What, again? Are you going to be okay walking that much?”

“Where were you thinking of going?” Basira asks Daisy instead.

“Uh, just the Prêt?”

“That’s close. I’ll just take it easy. We have to talk.”

Daisy nods, and when Basira curls her index finger, she stands up and follows like a little puppy wagging its tail, or like a perfectly trained gigantic attack dog on a very tight leash.

“Speaking of,” Basira adds dispassionately, “it’s statement day for you, Jon.”

It had completely escaped his mind, what with the thrill of the apple pie incident, but now that he’s made to notice it, he is feeling a little light-headed and weak, despite the actual lunch he’s just had. “Right.”

“Keep an eye on him, Melanie?”

Melanie drops her sunglasses from her forehead to cover her eyes mock-fashionably and gestures a small half-arsed military salute. “Goats and cabbages.”

Basira still looks a little tired, but she’s smirking as they leave; from the hallway, Jon can hear, mumbled, Daisy’s confusion about what that was about and Basira’s promise to explain.

So Jon retreats to the other office and records a statement about a pair of dangerous vagrants burning a police officer alive on the London Tube years ago, or, about how Trevor Herbert and Julia Montauk took down a British Transport Police officer member of the cult of the Lightless Flame. (Easy to deduce, just through normal reasoning. No esoteric help.)

Basira and Daisy come back about an hour later, which is rather a lot for a meatball wrap plus salad and a macchiato, but no one brings it up.

 


 

Wednesday passes with nothing notable, besides a long argument about the possible significance (Jon) versus lack thereof (Basira) of the solar eclipse coming up the next week, and Martin eating the spaghetti that evening.

On Thursday, Daisy disappears again.

The long and short of it, from what Basira finally unhappily sums up, is that on top of chasing down the leads of Jon’s unwilling dream mates, Elias is having her killing monsters again. Because this is all done with a reason, she is decisive that she can keep her head about it and not move on to hurting human people. Basira still finds the entire idea less than smashing, though, not the least because of how it entails serving Elias’s plans, but she can’t do anything about it if Daisy wants to do it. Daisy understands.

“Mommy and Mommy are splitting up,” translates Melanie.

“Because of me,” Jon whispers tiredly.

“Yup,” quips Basira, deadpan. “So get your face away from my eyes for a bit.”

Melanie takes him outside; she sits on the steps to the Institute entrance with her current library book (some very serious, very boring analysis of the belief in life after death Jon once read years ago) while he has a smoke on the pavement.

Jon leans against the stone wall, and he — doesn’t reach out, doesn’t do anything, but lets himself check on the knowledge he already has, actualises his idle awareness of the Institute staff at large, and, yes, Jess Tyrell is in.

He sort of expected Elias to dump her in one of the perpetually reopening spots in Artefact Storage, or at least a thankless job in the library so she would be exposed to the occult books and strange researchers all day, but no. She is a filing clerk in accounting. Perfectly boring work, with perfectly decent, normal people. The most disquieting thing she’ll encounter there will be Basira’s orders for more heavy-duty torchlights and pesticides. Maybe the machetes, if Elias lets those through (which, honestly, he might).

She is indeed not smiling very much, and she doesn’t look fine or rested yet, but she has had a full night’s sleep every day of this week. Which isn’t exactly news to Jon; her dream has been empty since Monday.

“Hurry up,” Melanie mumbles without glancing up. “I’ve got lunch plans.”

“Hm.”

He blows out a cloud of smoke and watches it waft up lazily. Jess Tyrell is at her computer, nervously clicking around an Excel sheet and checking the clock. She has been a hardworking employee all week, despite the fumbling with this new job so unlike what she used to do before, but there’s only five minutes left until the time she and Melanie planned to meet up, so it isn’t like she can get much more done before that.

It’s so strange, being back to working so suddenly, in such a bizarre environment, handling things she doesn’t quite understand and doesn’t get to see. She is an engineer, she’s always been the type to be on the field literally getting her hands dirty; the abstractness of this, the clean detachment, it doesn’t feel quite real yet. Like this is just one more vaguely uneasy dream, waking or sleeping.

She shudders, sudden and hard, and her right hand flies to the back of her neck reflexively, rubbing it as if to soothe pinpricks. Her heart rate picks up even before her thoughts articulate what her instincts know — she knows this feeling. She is being watched. Again, she is being watched again it’s back it’s not gone, of course not, there’s no escaping it how could she be stupid enough to think this would stop it how stupid of her to just walk right into the trap even when she was told she’s trapped again there’s no escaping it there’s no escaping she shouldn’t have trusted that woman she shouldn’t trust any of them —

“Jon? Hullo-o?”

He blinks. His smoke has dissipated and his cigarette has burned down almost to his fingertips, though his scorched skin there can hardly feel it.

He exhales, shakily. He’s not even short on breath. He’s fine; he feels great.

He feels sick to his stomach.

It was his, is the thing; her fear was his, he used to have it, to own it, he’s been robbed of it. The part of him that relishes it wants it back, wants to bask and revel in its intoxicating flavour again.

“Yeah, I’m done,” he tells Melanie, and drops his stub to the pavement and grinds it under the sole of his shoe, slowly, methodically, until it has gone out completely and can’t hurt anyone.

 


 

Melanie tells them, after, when she comes back from lunch with Jess Tyrell. It’s a good thing, it was a good idea, Basira and Jon agree. Jess was, well, not glad, but thankful to meet other people with similar experiences, though they didn’t talk about it much. She had a little panic attack again shortly before, it’s not like this fixed everything and she’s perfectly fine suddenly, but just one in a week is a lot better than her standard has been for the past two months. She’s never worked an office job before, it feels strange and she probably never would have gone for something like this, but she is slowly finding her marks and she thinks she might grow to like it well enough. She’s cute indeed, and nice, and likes to delicately stab her peas one by one with a fork (there’s a technique to it).

All she asks from the Archives is that she doesn’t want to ever see Jon again. Obviously.

Jon has his afternoon nap, with her empty dream, and the dark dream. It’s not the worst it’s ever been, but it’s still oppressive. Basira still doesn’t think it amounts to anything beyond normal PTSD (or as normal as can be expected in their circumstances). The beast is dead, the black sun has been destroyed, an eclipse is happening over the Arctic circle in a week like eclipses do, like it’s been predicted by mundane science for ages. It’ll be fine.

 


 

That Friday, Martin wakes up in the night.

Jon has been afraid of that, of course; and he’s been afraid because Martin wouldn’t like it. He knows, all right. He is aware that he’s not doing this for Martin, not for the selfless act of protecting Martin. This is for his own reassurance.

It’s not protectiveness, what he’s feeling. He is worried, but Martin is not looking vulnerable. In sleep, Martin mumbles and shifts; one of his hands comes up from under the blankets balled up into a tight fist. His jaw is braced stiff, his brow furrowed in a scowl. He looks like he’s in a difficult place and hanging on with tooth and nail — not fierce, either, just… tough. Ready. He isn’t at peace, but he isn’t in danger. Facing whatever it is he has to face, and handling it, truly.

Knowing that, seeing that, it’s a small comfort. Not much of it, but precious all the same.

As is just… seeing his face as much as Jon possibly can.

Out of nowhere, with a speed completely unexpected from someone sleeping, Martin rolls over and reaches out, extending his arm, hand open, fingers splayed out. He’s still asleep as he does it, but the movement has made him rise halfway up, and gravity steps in to pull him down and off the side of the bed, and Jon catches his breath as Martin lets out a little gasping drowsy grunt, clumsily steadies himself, rubs at his eyes. Opens them.

He stares at the wall above Jon’s head for a while. Jon keeps holding his breath for as long as he can, lets it out as silently as possible when he eventually has to. Perhaps Martin can just fall back into sleep undisturbed.

But after a minute, Martin mumbles: “Jon?”

His voice is muffled, in the eerie way the walls of the flat seem to absorb all sound. So it doesn’t echo or resonate, but it’s still loud in the complete silence: Martin’s voice saying Jon’s name.

Then again, when Jon doesn’t answer, a little clearer: “Jon?”

Jon’s ears are almost ringing with it — it’s been so long, he hasn’t heard this, his name in Martin’s voice, Martin saying his name, to him, in so, so long. It’s absurd, how intense it is, how happy it makes him, in such a distinctly bad circumstance.

Martin sighs, rubs his eyes again and peers into the dark, squinting in his direction, as if to make sure, and groans tiredly: “Jon, what the hell.”

Jon clears his throat.

“I, uhm.” He feels his cheeks flush under Martin’s glare, even though he can see that it’s unfocused; it’s unlikely that Martin can truly make out his face, in the dark and without his glasses. “I couldn’t sleep,” he settles on saying, seeing as it is true. Mostly true, for tonight. He isn’t even tired right now; he crashed for a fully two hours long nap in his office this afternoon.

Martin groans under his breath, quietly but with intensity, something which Jon suspects might be Polish and guesses from the tone must be a swear word, though Martin’s voice is too low and too thick with torpor for Jon to hear it clearly enough to understand it.

“So you come sit in my room? Couldn’t you watch some Netflix instead?”

Jon’s cheeks burn a little hotter. “I was, uhm, worried.”

Martin’s annoyance is so vast his sigh almost physically fills the room. “I’m not going to disappear in the night.”

He says it like it’s stupid, and Jon wants to scream How can I know that? again, wants to rattle off a laundry list of ways and reasons it could happen, really, really could happen. He bites his tongue, aware that this would just start the same argument again and unwilling to, especially in the middle of the night in Martin’s bedroom; but that means he has no other response to give than mopey silence.

“Jon, it’s —” Martin interrupts himself with another groan, frustrated, almost whiny. He brings his hand to his eyes again but this time the gesture is closer to driving his knuckles into his eyeballs, as if digging into them, clawing at them in frustration. He takes a deep breath before resuming: “You don’t watch people sleep. It’s creepy, okay?”

“Well, I am a monster,” Jon sulks before he can stop himself.

Martin’s silence has a different quality, after that. Resounding. Deafening. Reverberating in the empty air of the room, drilling through Jon’s ears. Like Jon’s just said something horrible, like the silence is caught in Martin’s throat with his breath. He sits there, propped halfway up on his elbow, unmoving, staring at Jon through his spread fingers with his eyes and face blank and blurred by sleep and distance. The room is cold, suddenly; Jon shivers and Martin doesn’t.

“Sorry,” Jon whispers, eventually, even though he doesn’t really know what he’s apologising for, besides himself, besides inflicting himself on Martin.

Martin sighs again and lets himself collapse, plopping back down flat on his mattress. He sounds so tired all the time; or is it just when he’s around Jon? “So, what, you need to watch?”

Jon rubs at his eyes, though not in the same way Martin has been doing it. It’s odd how deeply human habits, too ingrained to disappear, shift and translate to what he is and what he does now. “I don’t need to,” he admits, sincerely, “not in the sense that I would feel ill if I stopped.”

“Wait, you’ve —” and the sound Martin makes here is closer to something like ‘uuurrrggghhhhhh’ than a sigh. “It’s not just tonight? You’ve been doing this.”

“I’ll stop if you want.”

“How long, Jon.”

He winces. “Couple weeks?”

Martin swivels his head on his pillow to stare at him firmly.

“Little over two weeks,” Jon sighs. “Since I’ve been going back to the Institute. About twenty days, maybe.”

“Hm,” Martin says, pointedly not judging aloud, but judging. He turns his head away, towards the ceiling. “So why are you doing it?”

“It… helps.” Jon tugs at the hem of his trouser leg, runs it through his thumb and index fingers; anchors can be as small things as this, sometimes. “It’s centring. Seeing that you’re here…” He tries to find a wording that is true and not completely pathetic. “… helps with... bearing this place. And with the urge to know things about your, uh, activities.”

“Mmm. Have you been knowing?”

“No. Well, sometimes, I mean, you saw, you were there with… with Daisy.” He exhales. “But nothing about you.”

“Mmm.”

There’s a transient moment, as Martin thinks and Jon waits, picking at the fabric of his trousers. Eventually, Martin declares to the bare ceiling, into the silent room: “It’s fine, then, I guess.”

Jon blinks for a few seconds. “Really?”

“Still creepy,” Martin snaps back instantly, tartly.

Jon tries to smother his inappropriate snicker, schools himself into the proper gravity to reply: “Thank you.”

“I mean, if it helps. If that’s what it takes for you to not lose it in here,” Martin mumbles, and wiggles and shuffles around, wrapping the duvet around him like a chrysalis, burrows his head back into his plump pillow.

Jon chews on his lip for a few minutes, at the conclusion of which Martin suddenly says, without moving, eyes still closed:

“What.”

“What?” Jon retorts testily.

“I can practically feel you trying not to ask a question.”

Jon stops persecuting his lip, licks it, and admits, a little petty: “Two questions.”

Martin snorts. “Shoot.”

War again: the urge to ask versus the resolve to refrain, but more than that, the apprehension of bothering Martin, versus the elation of Martin enabling his curiosity, encouraging him to talk to him. Technically. A conversation, one that Martin is initiating, not enthusiastically but he’s not shutting it down.

Even if it isn’t a happy topic, Jon is not about to be the one cutting it short.

“I’ve been wondering,” Jon says, very carefully, “why you agreed to this.” He marks a pause, just to check that there is no compulsion in it, at all. “I am an inconvenience, even dangerous —” Martin buries a snort into his pillow, which is… well, not exactly insulting, actually rather on the side of reassuring, but Jon still feels a pang of misguided offence. “I am! I’ve… hurt people.”

Martin doesn’t reply to that; doesn’t deny it. It hurts, but Jon deserves nothing less.

So if they’re agreed on that — he needs to know, then, why Martin is still sticking with this, still sticking with him. He needs to hear it.

“I’m living in your flat,” he whispers. “I have been watching you at night. I am creepy, and a monster, and I have hurt people.” He needs to hear it. “Aren’t you afraid of me?”

“Nah.” Martin yawns, mouth opening wide, letting out a tiny involuntary high-pitched sound, like — like a kitten. It is absurdly sweet and completely irreverent of Jon’s existential crisis and that, too, might be an anchor, Martin himself grounded enough to just get tired and accidentally squeak at him and not even care. “Nah,” Martin resumes, “I’m mad at you, but I can handle you, and I could never be scared of you anyway.”

Which is not necessarily appropriate or wise, but makes Jon’s heart soar, suddenly and uncontrollably, like a gagging reflex. He clears his throat and shoves it back down. “Well, I’m still a liability,” he corrects, trying not to sound pissed off, “and you’re clearly not enjoying my presence here. And what with your little speech after the meeting, I would have assumed I would be… ruining your lonesomeness.”

Martin makes a small non-committal sound, halfway between sigh and agreement and not quite either. “Well,” he starts, interrupts himself with another yawn. “Well, it was a necessity for you to be contained, and the short of it is it doesn’t really matter for me, actually.”

That probably shouldn’t sting as much as it does.

“Peter did use to go on and on about how any interaction with anyone would ruin my development.” Martin’s face is obscured by the pillow, just his mouth free, but even without seeing most of his face Jon recognises just from the tone of his voice the annoyance, the contempt, the frustration of having heard that particular phrase dozens and dozens of times, and despite the context, he finds himself smiling. “But honestly? I don’t think it can do much.”

“Because you’re a Lukas.”

“Mm.” Martin rolls over on his back, sighing. “Partly that. No amount of socialisation would erase that.” He doesn’t even sound bitter about it, not even resigned, just accepting, as if that’s just a neutral fact and not intrinsically bad. Jon wonders how long he has known this; how he figured it out; how he took it at first; and fiercely diverts his train of thoughts to any direction but that one before he can know it. “But mostly — well, it’s not like I’d feel less lonely having you around my place.”

Martin stops, there, abruptly. There is more, unsaid, and Jon gnashes his teeth down on the urge to pursue it, balls his hands into fists to stop himself digging.

“The other thing?” Martin asks, clarion, eyes on the ceiling again.

“Can I come closer?”

Jo— that’s awfully pushing it,” he gripes, with complete reason, but he doesn’t say no, and Jon continues watching him patiently. “Whatever,” Martin ends up replying, a little defensive, but just a little. “Sure.”

Jon shuffles across the floor, to sit by his bed. From up close like this, he can see new details he had never noticed, or forgotten about: the dusting of smaller freckles all over Martin’s face beyond just the obvious dark ones around his nose and cheeks, the hints of stubble he’ll shave away in the morning, the sorry state of his lips from all the unconscious gnawing on them.

“Dial it down a little, will you,” Martin mumbles, squirming around into a comfortable position for sleep again, and Jon isn’t able to see colours in the dark so he can’t be sure, but thinks his cheeks darken a little.

“Yes. Uhm, I’ll — try.”

“Try harder.” Silence. “G’night, I guess.”

“Yes.” When Martin stayed at the Institute, during the Prentiss business, there were more than a few times when Jon would stay overnight as well. He already wasn’t sleeping much at the time, himself, but he remembers the feeling of hearing Martin amble around the archives, getting ready for bed, brushing his teeth in the sink, until the door of the safe room eventually closed. They didn’t used to say much, though; at most, something like an awkward or distracted ‘see you tomorrow’, sometimes. His mouth is a little dry, his tongue fumbles slightly at the unfamiliar words: “Good night, Martin.”

Martin goes silent and still, but it takes a long time for him to truly fall asleep. Jon knows when he does; he keeps watching.

 


 

Eventually, sunrise starts peeking discreetly through Martin’s blinds, and Jon stands up and just as discreetly retires. By the time he gets out of the shower, he thinks he can sense the absence. He doesn’t check into Martin’s room because he still can’t seem to remember which door it is, when thinking about it; but at any rate, a lazy Saturday passes without sound nor sight of his flatmate.

Jon catches up on some shows, does some cleaning and laundry, has a long nap on the sofa.

At night, he finds the door again.

Martin is already asleep. Jon goes for the wall, automatically, before remembering that he is allowed, now, and that he can sit closer, by his bed. Which is just as well, because there’s a little spiderweb newly settled in the corner of the room near his usual spot, and there’s no spider in it, and the only thing worse than seeing a spider is not seeing it, but if it’s still there it means Martin let it be and would get mad if Jon destroyed it. So. He sits at Martin’s bedside.

It really does help. Calms him down. Eases the constant worry. Watching over Martin’s slumber, making sure no spider crawls into his mouth in his sleep, checking for his breathing, looking out for any signs of distress, cataloguing the lines of his face, the spread of freckles, the little frown of his brow, the little pout of his lips, cross-checking against his mental records and being able to see and truly believe: yes, this is Martin, really him, he really is here, safe and resting.

In the faint moonlight, Martin shifts, grimaces, and Jon sits very still, holds his breath, in fear of waking him if he thinks about him too hard.

It would be fine. He is allowed to watch Martin. He is allowed to be here. If Martin were to wake up, they could just talk again, perhaps, talk some more. Martin could tell him about his day. Jon would like that. He’d like to be the one talking, too, though he’s not sure about what, maybe just the movies he’s been watching, the ones he thinks Martin might like too (does Martin like horror movies?) — just unimportant things, just an unimportant chat about other things than their jobs or impending ends of the world or their respective humanity and lack thereof. Jon would like that, just one carefree, fun chat with Martin, learning unimportant essential things about Martin.

But he doesn’t want to inconvenience him.

That’s almost all he wants, at this point; not to be an inconvenience, for anyone, and especially not Martin.