Martin had always assumed that I know would be Jon. It hadn’t seemed like an unreasonable guess – his soulmate’s last words, and who else’s could they be but the man who’d spent every second since Martin had met him trying to learn. Ever since that first day, Martin nervous in his ragged jumper but picked out to show the new hire in the immaculate tie round the Institute anyway, Jon had valued knowing over everything else, from his disdain when Martin had stumbled over the details of the tour to getting himself injured talking to monsters. Always had another question, pursued his answers like a bad-tempered bloodhound.
I know was – is him all over. There was a time when Martin might even have said that he was the sort of man to respond to an I love you with that, and that’s the sort of thing that he’d want to say to his soulmate before they died. But then it had stopped feeling like there would ever be a right or good time to say it to Jon, and he’d decided it would be some other situation, probably one that didn’t even have him in it. Still Jon, though. He’d never doubted it would be Jon.
He’d been wrong. He knows that, now – now that he’s sitting at Jon’s bedside, and the words on his palm have run like ink left out in the rain. Illegible now to anyone but him. But Jon isn’t the one who’s dead. If he’s still dreaming, he’s not gone, not enough to have done that.
Tim is. Tim’s gone and he’d taken the Unknowing and the House of Wax and Martin’s soulmark with him, and Martin had never even thought.
Martin counts the breaths that the machines take for Jon, and tries to let only the steady progression of the numbers into his head. Once he gets over a thousand they’re too awkward to plug the gaps and stop everything else. He wonders how long the doctors will take it before they take the machines out again, he wonders if they make any difference, he wonders if Tim had known.
They’d never really talked about it. Not on a personal level – just in general terms. Tim’s hadn’t been on an exposed patch of skin the way Martin’s had. All he can remember when he thinks back are vague noises of agreement in a conversation where a Sasha he can’t recall exactly had talked about what a stupid system it was, when you could only ever be sure you’d been with your soulmate when they were about to be gone, and even then, they might only be saying what they thought they were meant to.
Better, Martin thinks, that Tim had had about as much of an idea as he did. He’d never said anything to indicate an interest like that in Martin. As far as Martin’s aware, Tim’s eyes had never even lingered on him. He half-hopes that Tim hadn’t even worked it out at the end, that it had been so far down his list of priorities that Martin doesn’t have to imagine even a fraction of a second of disappointment.
Better if it’s only Martin having to deal with feeling like the floor’s fallen away under him, like he’s already crashed through four levels. It’s like he can’t know anything anymore, not when he’d been so sure of Jon. He loves him, he thinks, but he can’t trust in it, can’t believe without faltering that he didn’t just feel what he felt he should, because he thought they were soulmates.
He stays. Isn’t sure he has the right to, but can’t get himself to stand up and walk out. He hates the idea of his flat, still half-full of squirming silver memories, hates the idea of going back to the Institute because Melanie and Basira aren’t Sasha and Tim and Jon, and it’s not their fault but he doesn’t want to be faced with it. Can’t work out which one he hates more, so he just sits there, hoping for something to change, until one of the nurses comes and tells him that visiting hours are over.
The halls on his way out are white and unfamiliar, and if he just presses his fists into his eyes hard enough, he might be able to pretend he was still in those twisting corridors, everything that had happened just another of Michael’s deceptions, a precise, expert shove to unbalance him completely. Tim will be around the next corner, looking for him, and when he sees him he’ll grab Martin’s hand again and breathe like he’s been running the whole time they’ve been apart.
But there are no paintings and no mirrors and no yellow, and the door at the end takes him out onto a cold, night-time street where Tim isn’t, just as it should.
Martin wishes he could set it on fire as easily as he had the statements. He scratches his thumb across his palm, as if he could obliterate the marks there. But he’ll never be able to forget what they’d said, the moment that he’d felt them changing, like the steady drip of blood of his fingers. He’d tried not to look down, but he couldn’t stop himself, and what he’d see had been a harsher blow than anything Elias had done.
There’s a pub, across the road from the hospital. It’s full of strangers. A place to not know anyone or anything, and Martin can’t stand the idea of anything else.
Martin becomes a regular. He’s not paying the landlord’s wage, or anything – doesn’t get blackout drunk, end up stumbling down to the tube station like someone’s greased the pavement. It’s the noise, more than the beer, that he goes there for. It’s got this pleasant, background buzz of conversation, from people out with friends or family. He’d grown so used to the bitten-off curses and resentful muttering he’d hear at the Institute, it’s nice to remind himself that the other stuff still exists, even if it isn’t his.
He goes back to the Institute fairly often now. Works irregular hours, for a given value of works. There’s only so much interest to be found in sorting through statements, when his archiving job has turned out to be a façade built by a monster planning to turn the world into a fear factory. He tries to look for ways of getting Jon back, but aside from that, it doesn’t feel like there’s any urgency about any of the rest of it. Not much point in doing the filing.
The others are the same. Basira and Melanie each seem to be fragmenting in their own ways, and he’s ignored more messages from Peter Lukas than he cares to count. He has no interest in taking him up on any summons to Elias’ old office – at the end of his workday, he’ll spend as many hours as he can sitting next to Jon and trying not to think about anything, and then to the bar until it closes.
There’s no change, with Jon. Martin wants him back, so badly that sometimes it feels like he can hardly breathe. He’s half-afraid of it, too, has no idea if he’ll still be in love with the man who wakes up. If he has any right to be. Jon isn’t his soulmate. There’ll be someone out there who is, and even if they’re already gone or never to be found, surely he shouldn’t be standing where they’re meant to be.
Martin’s tried to work through that far too often since Tim had destroyed the Unknowing, and not a single one of those times had brought him any closer to an answer. It’s a useless thing to think on.
He does what he can to distract himself from it. Installs card games on his phone, concentrates on them as best he can. It’s not like he really has any photos to flick through, or anyone to be texting. Something to do to pass the time, until Jon wakes up, until his head can adjust to this new reality.
The night that someone takes the seat next to him, it takes him a while to notice. He’s too busy, trying to keep himself occupied with his game until he can go back to his flat and be tired enough to get to sleep immediately.
Someone clears their throat softly, and when he glances up, there’s a man sitting there. He’s slightly taller than Martin, broader across the shoulders, like he probably works out, and one of the most handsome people Martin has ever seen.
Couldn’t hold a candle to Tim, though, Martin decides. If it had been just about how they looked, they might have been on a par – the lines of their jaws and noses aren’t that dissimilar – but Tim, in the old days, had always had this easy charm about him. When he’d walked into a room, it had been like the sun coming out. The stranger doesn’t have anything like that, is just blandly pleasant to look at.
“Sorry,” the man says. His voice is one that should be being used for radio broadcasts. “Just checking I’m not taking someone else’s seat?”
“No,” Martin says, with a thin, scarcely-meant smile. “Be my guest.”
The man grins, like he’s straight out of an advert. Some carefully-cast commercial, trying to sell something and deciding that he was the ideal they should all be striving for.
“I’ve seen you in here before, right?” he asks.
“Yes to the seat,” Martin says, letting his voice sharpen, shifting pointedly to angle a shoulder between himself and the stranger. “No to the talking.”
“Sure,” the man says. “We don’t have to talk.”
Martin makes a faint, noncommittal noise. The man doesn’t go. He starts to count the bubbles in his beer, and gets to over a hundred before the tone of voice that had actually been said in filters through to his brain. It’s not one he hears often, but if he’d actually been looking at the man’s face, he probably would have seen a corresponding smirk, or a significant twitch of an eyebrow.
“Are you flirting with me?” he demands, wrenching his head around to stare in disbelief.
The man shrugs, wide and disarming.
“I thought so,” he says. “But it looks like I might need to submit it for review. Bit off my game, apparently.”
“Hm,” Martin says. He glances back towards his phone screen as it flickers off into battery-saving mode, glad of the distraction.
“Sorry,” the man says. “Didn’t realise it wasn’t welcome – I’ll try my luck somewhere else.”
“It’s not that,” Martin says, the sentence pulling at his throat like fishing line. “I just – people like you don’t flirt with people like me.”
“So it’s not unwelcome?” the man pushes, then sighs when Martin lets the silence pointedly back in. “Yeah, you’re right. But I’ve just broken up with one of the sorts of people I do flirt with. Thought I might have a go at something different. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong.”
“Oh.” Martin hesitates, taps his fingers against the side of his glass. “I’m… sorry to hear that?”
“Don’t be,” the man says. “It wasn’t a great situation to be in, you know?” He clears his throat again, more loudly this time, like he’s trying to use it to push something out of his own head. “I’m not here for sympathy. All I want from you right now is to know whether or not I’m going to have to go and find another table.”
Martin considers him again. He’s got no less attractive, still as far out of Martin’s league as Tim had been. Whatever decides whose words get written where had probably laughed about that – maybe when Jon wakes up, Martin can ask him which monster he thinks it is. He’d take his best guess at the one that destroys, that had burned up Jon’s hand and the face of the boy in the coffee shop. That’s left him to curl in on himself, wretched at the loss of something he didn’t know he had.
The man’s not Tim. He’s not Jon. Doesn’t really even look like either of them, Martin decides. All superficial.
“Fine,” he says. It’s not something he does – go out, listen to people’s pick-up lines, not that he usually hears those in the first place. Get drunk and get flirted with. But maybe it’ll be good for him, a distraction, or a reminder that millions of people date or live perfectly happy lives with others who aren’t their soulmates.
Either way, it doesn’t feel like there’s any harm in sitting and listening to the man talk for a little while longer. And when the man leans a little closer, and asks if he’d like to go somewhere a little quieter, the words a stirring against the side of his neck, he lets himself be encouraged to his feet. They wander outside together, and Martin’s thoughts start to prickle. He doesn’t think it’s meant to be like this. There should be kissing or laughing or something. Instead, there’s at least an inch of space between them at all times.
Maybe, he thinks, the man’s not comfortable with public displays of affection. It wouldn’t be that unreasonable. But the whole thing just doesn’t feel how Tim had ever made it sound.
“Um,” Martin says, trying and failing not to be distracted by the ever-present lights of the hospital over the road. “Where are we–”
The blow hits him so hard that he goes down like a house of cards, his skull ringing with the impact. He clutches at the ground next to him, trying to push himself back up, but his hands find something sharp and jagged, maybe glass. He hisses, but manages to scrabble around, peering up at the man through pulsing vision.
He’s standing over him, and that pleasant expression is so completely gone that Martin can’t even remember how it looked. From this new angle, Martin can make out a row of stitches, precise and bloodless and wrong. They’re only just visible, disappearing under the hem of an untucked shirt.
“What?” Martin asks, the question thick and bleary on his tongue. He can feel something trickling down the side of his face.
“You shouldn’t be unfaithful,” the man says. He shoves at Martin’s hand with a disdainful shoe, and Martin yanks it away, curls it protectively against his chest.
He’s too late trying to duck out of the way of another trike. Awareness is gone before he can even come up with one thing that the man might have meant.
Martin comes to slowly, his face resting against something soft. If it weren’t for the pounding in his head, that would be enough for him to have assumed that none of what he remembers had ever happened. He could have just dreamed the whole thing. It’s not like any of it feels realistic. But he can hardly think past what feels like a pain that’s laced into every single pulse of blood through his brain.
After a while, he tries opening his eyes. Closes them again, fast, when the light’s like pouring petrol directly into his optic nerve. He hadn’t noticed much, but he’d got the vague impression of a bedroom, appointed like a half-built hotel, simple and nondescript.
He lies there for a minute, trying to steady himself. The pain lessens a little, and he tries to explore with his other senses – he finds the mattress beside him with one hand, but the other he can’t move properly – it’s numb, and there’s something hard and cold wrapped around his wrist. Cuffed, he decides, secured to the bedframe.
They must want something, then, whoever they are. Haven’t killed him yet. Even if all they’re going to do is kill him later, he still has a chance at getting out of this.
Eventually, the pain recedes enough that he can make out the sounds of voices, so hushed that they’re almost drowned out by his own breathing.
“I don’t care,” one says, the lower syllables almost losing their distinction. “It’s not like the movies, Danny – when you hit someone that hard, they’re probably not going to get up again.”
“He’s still alive.” The second voice is nearer, louder, and Martin manages to place it – the man from the bar, Danny. “And he shouldn’t have–”
“I thought that was your plan?” The first is still harder to discern, like it’s being intentionally hushed. “So why are you so pissed off that he did what you wanted?”
“‘Cause he’s yours.” It’s said shortly, like it’s obvious, and it seems like it’s going to go somewhere, but the other person cuts in before Danny can say anything else. It’s louder now, and Martin gets a spark of recognition so strong it almost stalls his heart out of his chest.
“Yeah,” it says, with a slight edge to it now. “He’s mine. And if you hurt him again, I’ll dismantle you. Understand?”
There’s no response – no time for one. A second later, the door into the room is opening, and for all that it’s done slowly, done carefully, the sound of it still ratchets across Martin’s nerve endings. He tries opening his eyes again, despite it, has to see, even if it hurts.
And then he sees who’s standing there, and forgets all of it.
“Tim?” he whispers. It’s barely audible, the faintest of scratches in his throat, worn down until it’s almost nothing.
Tim offers Martin a smile so like his old one that it blurs, tears starting to rise. It’s exactly right, exactly as Martin remembers it, and he can feel the impossibility of that starting to try and crush in at the edges of his awareness, but he doesn’t want to feel it.
“Hey,” Tim says. He walks further in, holds up one hand, like he’s trying to signify that he isn’t a threat, cradling a green plastic box under his other arm. He looks better, like he had before the corridors – before Prentiss, even, that easiness back in his face like it had never gone away. “Martin.” The corners of his mouth try to turn up even further at the word, but he keeps it curbed, just about. “How’ve you been?”
Martin stares at him, utterly unable to come up with a response and struggling to keep something loud and wordless from bursting out of his chest.
“You look like shit,” Tim says. He sets the box down on the bed next to Martin, and ignores it in his favour. “Can’t say I find that drastically upsetting. Wouldn’t want you to be just breezing on past me dying.”
“How are you…?” It doesn’t even sound to Martin like his voice, too hoarse, too breathless.
Tim shrugs one shoulder, and flicks at one of the fastenings on his box.
“After the explosion,” he says. “The Circus was almost completely wiped out. Danny survived – he was thrown behind something. When the police had finished with the scene, he broke in and took me. Owes the Boneturner some favours for putting me back together, and then, I guess, the uncanny powers of the Stranger.” He angles his head slightly, pulls at his skin with his free hand. “Jared did a great job of it though. Look! No worm scars.”
My Tim had worm scars, Martin thinks. It’s a sudden cold, dousing his gut like ice water, swamping everywhere that that first bright happiness had been. Tim’s not back. There’s no magic in the world for that. The powers take. They don’t give back, won’t ever do anything but hurt. This isn’t Tim, just a monster in his shape.
“Sorry Danny got so militant about it,” Tim’s saying, chatting on like he hasn’t noticed Martin stiffening. “I told him about you, the whole… soulmates thing.” He gestures, almost carelessly, at Martin’s hand. “And he thought you should be here with me.”
How long did you know what we were? Martin wants to ask, but he bites the question down so hard that he’s convinced for a moment he can taste blood. This thing is a mockery, just like the Sasha monster had been, and he’s not going to learn anything from it that he’d wanted to know from Tim.
“… and I’d like to help,” Tim finishes. He’s holding a ball of cotton wool, pulled out from the box, and the soft white puff of it looks so wrong in that stolen hand that Martin feels sick. “If that’s all right with you?”
Martin pauses, takes a moment to swallow, to control his voice.
“What about this?” he asks, carefully neutral, giving the cuff a quick rattle.
“Oh,” Tim says, and that spot-on cheerful expression flickers. “I’d like to take it off. But Danny says you’ll take some time to adjust. I think he’s being suspicious, but he says you might get yourself hurt if I take it off before you’re ready.”
You’ll hurt me if I try to escape, Martin concludes. It’s not a surprise, shouldn’t be a surprise. He shouldn’t have let himself think any of this was good, even for one concussed second. Should have known better than to have fallen for any of it.
There’s not much of a choice. He gives a short nod, turns his face away.
Tim takes his hand – his touch is warm, a light, gentle pressure, the sort of thing that Martin hasn’t felt in far too long, and he has to hold his breath to stop himself from flinching away. There’s a faint sting, as Tim draws the soaked cotton over one of the cuts on his palm. It’s not the one with the soulmark on it, but the fingers on that side twitch reflexively anyway, and the cuff shifts around his wrist at the movement.
“As you’re here,” Tim says, voice low in what must be well-practiced sympathy. “I’m sorry about Jon.”
“Are you?” Martin demands – he can’t keep the sharpness out of it, hadn’t expected anything like that.
“Not really.” Tim gives him a lopsided smile that Martin wants to claw off his face. It doesn’t belong to him. “But I am sorry you’re hurting. You understand I still care about you, right?” He taps Martin’s other hand, and Martin grits his teeth, doesn’t cringe. “I can’t not. I know I’m… different, now. But I know what we are now, and I’m not going to hurt you. Not ever.”
“What are you going to do with me, then?” Martin manages to steady it this time, pretends at something like idle curiosity, rather than fear, than anger.
“I was thinking I’d protect you,” Tim says, shrugging. Martin’s seen that exact gesture from him before, remembers him using it to talk about small, inconsequential things. “Like I said, it wasn’t my decision to pick you up, but I’m stronger now. I can do a better job of it than Jon ever did. Danny will help.”
“I’ll get sick,” Martin points out, carefully reasonable. “If you try to keep me away from the Institute.”
“I don’t think so,” Tim says. He slides the cotton ball over Martin’s hand again, a little harder. “I know I did, but I was trying to get away from it. You aren’t. It’s not as simple as geography.” He wipes again, pointedly gentler. “If you need, you can make statements about me. Or I can find you other people with statements.”
“Before or after you kill them?” It’s a crack in Martin’s control, the precariousness of it wearing.
“I’ve not killed anyone yet,” Tim says. He leans a little way back, frowns down at Martin as he says it, makes sure he meets his eyes, like he’s remembered some distant half-truth about eye contact being important for truth-telling. “So I’m hardly any worse than Jon. You were always happy enough to forgive him anything. You know what his dreams are like? I’ve been do them, now that I’m not his anymore. He watches me get eaten by worms, every fucking night. I know I’m not the only one. You’d be there, too, if you switched sides or got out. He just stares. You think he’ll be any different when he wakes up?”
“If he wakes up,” Martin mutters. Another thing he’s been trying not to give voice to, not to accept, but could never stop himself from thinking.
Tim’s eyebrows twitch. He leans in, reaching to dab at the cut on Martin’s face, but Martin twitches back into the bedframe, wincing. Tim pauses, as though waiting for him to steel himself, and then tries again. There’s nowhere else for Martin to go, this time. He wants to close his eyes again, try to remember if the real Tim had ever touched him like this, try to paper this over with that. It bleeds through, past the few times that he can dredge up, those first couple of night staying in the Archives after Prentiss, when he’d tried to comfort him, all those twisting memories from the corridors.
“I’m just saying,” Tim tells him. “You’re not going to find any paragons of morality here. I mean, I told you those statements were evil. You just kept on reading them because you thought it needed doing.”
“And now you’re evil.” The last of Martin’s control shatters, the accusation stinging and furious in his throat. “Don’t you dare talk to me about what he said, don’t you dare pretend to still be him.”
Tim is still for a long few seconds. Martin’s expecting him to lash out, how Danny had, give him a matching cut on the other side of his face, but he just leans back again, drops the cotton wool back into his box, and closes it in a smooth, swift motion.
“If that’s how you feel,” he says, taking a backwards step away from him. “Danny’s probably right. You’re going to need some time to adjust to this. I shouldn’t have… just let me know if you need anything, all right?”
“I need you to let me go.” It’s almost petulant, and Martin can hardly bring himself to care. If he could have moved that way, he’d have rolled over, set his back to Tim, refused to look at him.
“No,” Tim says. “You don’t. Martin – I’ll bring you anything you need, but we need to work this out. I’m sorry. I’ll be in the next room, so you can call me if you want anything. Or Danny. He won’t hurt you again.”
The best that Martin can manage is turning his face away, so he does that, finds a point on the wall and studies it as hard as he can. It’s blank, undefined, and it would have been so much easier if this repaired monster had been too, if it hadn’t been so accurate. Not Tim anymore, he reminds himself.
The door closes again with a quiet click, and Martin doesn’t miss the sound of a lock sliding into place.
The thing that isn’t Tim is as good as his word. He comes in a few times per day, and does his best to make sure Martin’s comfortable – he checks his wounds, gamely shuffles his pillows about, unlocks the cuff so he can use the tiny ensuite bathroom whenever he needs to. He even lets Martin stand at the window, if he’s there, though he must know on some level that Martin’s looking for a way out. Martin hates him for it, his stomach churning with every little kindness afforded to him.
It gets harder, to remember that it’s all false. That it can’t be genuine. It’s too easy to let his mind slip back, forget. After Prentiss, he’d visited Tim, a lot. He’d thought at first that Sasha would be checking up on him, but she’d not been around, coping in her own way, he’d thought – the lie’s obvious enough to think back on – so he’d gone instead. Tim had accepted the fussing in a way that had eased that frantic, trapped-bird guilt in Martin’s head, let him relax again without that insistent whisper that he he’d not done enough.
He’d tried to be nearby, when Tim had needed him – had expected accusations of stifling, but Tim had seemed to enjoy the company. Had been okay with him, then. The issues had only really started when he’d come back to work and found Jon not a companion in misery, but a suspicious, narrow-eyed spider, twitching fruitlessly at a knotted nonsense of a web.
Sometimes, Martin wakes up, and has to remind himself that this isn’t the inverse of that. Tim isn’t taking care of him. Tim’s long gone. If this one looks the same, even acts the same, it’s just superficial. The whole twisted scenario is proof of that.
But he’s always careful, asks before he does things, smiles like he means it. If anything, he’s more the man Martin had first met than he had been before he died. It makes sense, when he loses control of his thoughts enough to try to work through it – the bitterness might have been eased by finally getting revenge for Danny, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that something’s taken that away. Maybe, as long as they were together and even half themselves, the real Tim wouldn’t have minded being taken by exactly the same thing.
Danny, though, doesn’t fit Tim’s description of him at all. Tim’s statement had painted him as friendly, excitable. The thing that comes in, grudgingly and clearly at an absent Tim’s request, is surly, makes his hatred clear. If Martin needs to use the bathroom, he puts the handcuff back on tighter. If he sees Martin’s head’s bothering him, he slams the door. If he cleans Martin’s cuts, it’s like he’s trying to wash the remnants of his soulmark off him. Every time, Martin has a vague, hollow hope that he might succeed, but it seems they both have to live with the disappointment.
As his captivities go, it’s more comfortable than Prentiss. He wishes it wasn’t quite so easy to hate it less, right up until it isn’t anymore.
Tim walks in on day eight, after a tentative knock on the door. He gestures at the edge of the bed, takes his seat there only when Martin nods, to say it’s okay. The old Tim probably wouldn’t have hesitated, but the old Tim had had no reason to think that Martin would ever be afraid of him.
“I’ve got you something,” he says, with what should be a confident smile. It misses by a mile – he actually seems faintly nervous. “I meant to give it to you yesterday, you’ve been here a week and it felt like I should… but I had to go and… anyway.” He holds out a tasteful paper gift bag towards Martin. When Martin takes it, warily, he brings his hand back into his lap, his fingers fidgeting. “Danny says you can’t use it yet, but it’s yours when you’re ready.”
Martin glances down into the bag, and feels something in his chest loosen. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but the sleek box with its minimalistic logo is a relief. A phone, and quite a nice model, at that. He looks up, offers Tim a faint smile, and Tim beams in response. There’s nothing off about the expression, and Martin almost forgets to look.
“We had to destroy your old one,” he says. “But I saved all your photos and stuff. Should be more durable, I know you were going through them by the end.”
That’s one way of saying it. One lost to Prentiss, one that had never been right again after the corridors, one that Daisy had insisted on looking through and hadn’t felt safe afterwards.
“I also… I went to see Jon today,” Tim adds. It’s almost off-hand, but Martin can tell by the way his eyes linger that it’s more significant than the phone. He feels his grip on the gift bag tightening, until his fingers are pressing a little too hard against his healing cuts.
“What did you do to him?” Martin can’t keep the question in; it rattles raw from his throat. For a wild second, he hopes that Tim didn’t hear it, but there’s a subtle shift somewhere behind his face.
“Nothing,” Tim says, blinking like the possibility hadn’t occurred to him. “I just thought you’d want to know how he is. Danny says you were visiting him every day, before.”
“How is he?” Martin’s voice is thin, reedy, but he’s not sure how to take the first step towards controlling it.
“No change,” Tim says. And then, almost perfect in its affected sympathy: “I’m sorry.”
“I… I’d like it if you didn’t go near him again,” Martin says, putting the gift bag carefully down on the bed next to him, trying to use the motion to cover anything else. “He…”
“He wouldn’t like it,” Tim concludes, and everything in his body languages indicates that he’s backing down, but Martin can’t believe it. “That’s fine. I just, didn’t want you to…” He trails off, makes a gesture that Martin can’t even begin to interpret. “I just thought you’d want to know, is all. I’m not a monster, not the one you think I am. I know I’m not the same, but… none of us, are we?”
Martin hesitates. He shouldn’t argue. Shouldn’t risk it, point out that there’s a difference between him being changed by his experiences, and Tim being exploded and repaired by two different monsters.
“Just give me a chance,” Tim goes on. “I’m sorry that we didn’t get to be what we were meant to before, but we both know now. We have time.”
“And what was that?” Martin asks, straightening the crumpled creases in the bag. “Before?”
Tim frowns, reaches out, and takes Martin’s hand. He runs a finger across Martin’s palm, finds the old shapes of the letters. I know. The touch raises the hairs on the back of Martin’s neck, and he struggles not to flinch away.
“I didn’t realise,” he says. “Not until it happened, and I said it. I don’t think most people realise. You read all these think-pieces about whether or not the last words are self-fulfilling prophecies, but I didn’t realise the significance until it was too late. I hope if I’d known sooner I might have been different, to you.”
“What… what do yours say?” Martin holds the bag out back towards him, bites at his lip.
“Don’t have them anymore,” he says, airily. “Jared took them off like everything else that Danny thought I wouldn’t want. And he was right – it’s better like this. You’re not going to have last words. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“What were they?”
“I don’t remember.” Tim gives a one-shouldered shrug and stands up again, retrieves the bag from Martin’s slack hand. “Did you need anything else? Danny’s thinking of going out later, I’ve asked him to pick up those biscuits you liked. Thought maybe we could do something nice tonight.”
Martin shakes his head, wordlessly, not sure what he’s refusing. Tim’s question hasn’t really made it in. Those last words on his hand had been the first thing he’d ever tried to write himself, carefully mimicking the loops. They’d been something to cling to when his father had left, an assurance that there was someone out there he was bound to. He sees their shape in his dreams. Forgetting them, he thinks, isn’t possible.
But this is as much Tim as that thing had been Sasha. He does a good impression, but if he had been testing Martin with that mention of Jon, and Martin had failed, then he had failed too. It shouldn’t remember, and it doesn’t mean anything that it’s telling him the things that he’d wanted Tim to, ever since that moment when the mark on his hand had turned. He’s never going to hear anything again from the Tim Stoker that he should have been in love with.
It takes far too long for Martin to take an opportunity. He tells himself that he doesn’t get any – Tim’s always fairly close. Doesn’t loom, never acts aggressively, but Martin’s can’t not be aware of how much time it would take him to cross the space between them, that he has no way of making him stop if he does decide to do something, that no one will come if he shouts for help. And then, he doesn’t know the layout of the rest of the building, how long he would need to get somewhere he could hide.
He’s not sure he can believe any of it. Maybe there’s a part of him convinced that he won’t need to, that hopes that Basira and Melanie will notice that he’s gone, that Peter will decide to come looking, that Jon might wake up. That someone will come after him, someone stronger than he is.
That’s the interpretation he likes better. The other one whispers through his skull in the early morning hours, while he stares blankly into the room’s half-dark. It tells him that he doesn’t really want to go. The days keep turning, until that’s the only one he can think of, and he rejects it.
He watches, waits, listens. Whenever he hears someone come to his door, he cranes his neck, looking for signs of the space beyond, focusses on a different corner each time. He manages to piece together an impression of the rest of a flat – not a corridor. It’s light, roomy, so he hopes it’s open plan, that there are only two doors between him and freedom.
There’s less help at the window. All he can work out from there is that they’re not on the ground floor, and not somewhere that he recognises. There’s a street below, usually host to a steady stream of foot-traffic, usually bright umbrellas and waterproofs in defiance of the greying weather. The back of a shopping centre opposite blocks out most of the horizon, and he can’t make out any landmarks – they might not even still be in London.
The chance comes on a rain-rattled afternoon on what Tim tells him is a Thursday – he brings in a tray with Martin’s lunch, and a small book of crosswords. He uncuffs Martin’s hand before he hands the tray over, studies his skin, checking to make sure that it hasn’t been hurting him. It’s a routine, now, something he does almost without paying attention. He settles into his place at the other end of the bed, and makes a start on his puzzle, asking Martin clues every couple of minutes.
The crosswords feel like his latest attempt to push some kind of normalcy onto Martin. Tim had never been that into the puzzles, but Sasha had enjoyed them, from what Martin remembers. She’d have them with her on their lunch breaks. Called out any she didn’t know, and they’d do their best to help. Jon would even occasionally announce an answer in passing. Martin had liked it, then, had felt like it made them friends, rather than colleagues. Like they’d chosen each other’s company. He’d really liked Sasha for that, for all those little efforts she’d made to make it all a little bit more companionable.
It doesn’t work with just Tim, and he doesn’t enjoy remembering it anymore. Not with that remote, assessing thing sitting in her place.
Martin tries to force down his toasted sandwich, and wonders if he even remembers the real Tim properly. It’s not like he’d know, and Tim had been taken by the same thing that had replaced Sasha. The food feels like sawdust in his mouth, tastes bland on his tongue, though he knows that Tim had put mustard in it.
Tim isn’t paying attention. He’s slouching back, so much the image of himself in Martin’s memory that his throat aches. He’s studying a question, his brow knit, and Martin glances down at his tray, and then back up at Tim. It’s not the heaviest weapon he could have asked for – plastic, with a couple of cartoon dogs drawn on it – but it’ll have to do.
Martin shifts slightly. Holds his breath, watches for any sign of awareness from Tim. He moves a little more, a little faster. Nothing.
He draws in a lungful of air, then bolts to his feet. He smashes the tray as hard as he can into Tim’s face. There’s a noise like breaking china as the plate catches him, but Martin doesn’t wait to see what damage has been done. He just runs. Makes it the three paces to the door. Wrenches it open, convinced for the whole second that it takes that he’s going to feel a hand grabbing at his collar, be yanked to a stop so hard he’ll bruise.
There’s nothing, and he shoves through into the flat beyond. It’s sparsely furnished – no distractions, nothing for Martin’s eyes to mistake for the way out. It’s scant metres away, and he may never have been the best runner, but his heart is trying to beat out of his chest, pulse thundering in his skin, and it feels fast as he sprints for it.
He hits the door, fumbles the chain away. Tries the handle, nearly sobs when it turns, opens, and–
A hand snatches out from the other side, wraps around his throat. He recognises Danny, holding what looks like a shopping bag, and panic turns his thoughts white. Then his vision starts to blur, as Danny begins to squeeze, his fingers digging into Martin’s neck. They don’t feel right, too rigid underneath, and there’s a distant moment in his head of being glad that Tim’s aren’t like that. He reminds himself that they’d be better if they were.
Danny takes a step inside, pushing Martin ahead of him – he stumbles, loses his footing, but Danny’s grip keeps him suspended. The door slams. He tries to pull Danny’s hold away, but his hands feel as blurred as his sight, every effort sliding uselessly off.
He sees movement, thinks he hears something, but it’s far away now. Tim, he thinks, but it’s not something that he can really tell from anything, beyond the fact that Tim is the only other thing there.
Danny’s fingers abruptly release, and Martin falls, crumples onto the floor. He coughs, too violently, and the movement sparks through too many colours at the edges of his vision.
“I told you.” It’s Tim’s voice, swimming in and out of hearing range. “Not to touch him.”
“So I should just have let him get away?” Danny sounds sharp, and Martin can almost recognise the same tones in it that Tim had used, before the end.
“I’m sure there were ways to stop him that didn’t involve almost killing him,” Tim snaps. “I know you don’t like him, but I do.” He crouches down next to Martin, the motion frame-skipped and stuttering. He reaches for him, expression softening. “Martin? It’s going to be okay. Danny will apologise.”
Danny’s shape is a distant, forgettable blur behind him, but Martin’s sure if he could see him, his expression would be mutinous.
Martin closes his eyes, and lets himself stop knowing anything.
Tim is still there, when Martin wakes up. He’s been moved back into his room, and Tim is perched on the bed beside him like he’s been checking his pulse every five minutes, holding that book of crosswords in both hands, his knuckles blanched. As soon as Martin’s eyes open, he’s moving – up onto his feet, and back a pace.
Martin flinches back, goes to scramble away, but his arms give out, his face smacking into his pillow. There’s no handcuff, he realises, a stab of confusion into his already-whirling head.
“Martin?” Tim goes to reach for him, thinks better of it. The concern on his face is tempered by the gash on the side of his face – Martin frowns at it, wondering how it dare bleed. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Martin can’t believe it. He’d tried to get away, and there’s always some kind of punishment for that, to make sure that he won’t do it again. This Tim might tell him so with sad eyes, promise that it’s for his own good, but he’ll do it all the same.
“I’m sorry about Danny,” Tim goes on. “I thought he’d come around, but… you were a lot more Beholding, than he expected. He went and got you because he thought it was going to be a nice thing for me, but now he’s decided you’re a danger. That you’ll bring the Watcher down on us. And he says we won’t survive that. We’re not strong enough, after the Unknowing failed. If he hurts you again, I’ll... I’ll find us somewhere he isn’t, okay?”
“Let me go,” Martin says. The words are barely audible, and seem to rip through his neck like a hacksaw.
Tim’s frown deepens, but he shows no other reaction, like he’s pretending he hadn’t heard. He steps to the dresser, changes the puzzle book out for something else, then comes closer again, too close – Martin cringes, and he stops. Breathes for a moment, then holds out the thing in his hands, so Martin can see it better. It’s a tube of something, the spiked cap reminiscent of something medical.
“For your throat,” he says. “You’ve got some nasty bruises coming. I’d like to help, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll do it myself,” Martin growls, and the vibrations of it ache in his throat.
“You can’t see them,” Tim points out, the effortless rationality in the words at odds with his tone. “And Danny says we shouldn’t have you around any mirrors. Please, Martin. I don’t want you to keep hurting.”
“Then why did you keep me?” Martin tries to push himself back up again, and manages to get high enough this time to properly muster a glare. “You said it wasn’t your idea, and Danny clearly doesn’t want me around – let me go back to the Institute.”
“It wasn’t my idea,” Tim admits, lowering the tube. “But – Martin, Danny’s not the only one who didn’t realise how bad it had got with the Eye for you. When he brought you back – I could almost... I guess, smell it on you? Not actually, but I can’t really describe it. I just sense that kind of thing. And I can tell the Lonely’s been sniffing around you too. If I let you go back to the Institute – it feels like I’d lose you. And I’m not prepared to do that, okay?”
“No.” Martin tries to put his teeth into the answer, but Tim doesn’t even flinch. “No, you don’t get to say that you’re doing this for my own good, I have choices–”
“I’m not saying that,” Tim tells him, as easily as if he’d prepared the argument before. “Not exactly. Martin – you knew we were soulmates, right?”
“Not until you died.” The response feels too short for living through that, inadequate for the experience. Martin doesn’t dare let it push any longer, though, let Tim hear the festered grief in his head.
“Right,” Tim says. He fixes his gaze on Martin, dips his head like he’s trying to make sure they have eye contact. “And you know how that felt? I don’t want to feel that. So I’m going to keep you safe, from the Eye and the Lonely and yourself, if I have to. Now, please will you let me sort your neck out?”
Martin stares at him. Tries to read a lie in his face, but can’t find one. He manages a tight nod, then settles back down onto his pillow, tries not to look. Tim lets out a soft sigh, and moves to take his seat on the bed again, the mattress dipping with his weight. Martin can’t stop a fleeting glance up, catches himself searching the underside of Tim’s jaw for seams, and turns his eyes fixedly towards a patch of mildew starting to come on the ceiling.
Tim’s hands are warmer than Martin thinks they should be, his touch gentle against his throat. The cream is cold enough to make him flinch, but Tim sooths that away. There’s a murmured apology at Martin’s every hiss. He’s careful, and it feels as though he’s smoothing off the ragged edges of Martin’s thoughts, too, lulled by the contact. The throbbing in his head starts to ease, and he’s almost dropping off by the time that Tim leans back, leaving Martin’s skin frigid from the lack of him.
“There,” he says, resting a hand briefly on Martin’s. “That’s better, right?”
Martin says nothing. He’s unwilling to thank him, refuses to give him that.
“Do you need anything?” Tim tries. “Food? Water? I can try to get you some ice if you think that would help, but our freezer doesn’t really work. Painkillers?”
“Why haven’t you cuffed me?” He’s half-sure he shouldn’t have asked it, convinced that maybe Tim had just forgotten, that now he’ll make certain that Martin is properly secured.
“I don’t like doing it,” Tim says, after a short pause. “You wouldn’t be able to run if something happened. Danny insists, but he’s out for the evening, and I’ve told him not to come near you for a while.” He conjures an almost convincing smile. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to bludgeon me again.”
“Why stop now?” Martin presses. “I mean, I tried to–”
“Yeah.” Tim says. He shifts, and Martin can feel the movement through the mattress. “You did. I don’t want you to feel like you need to escape from me. I don’t think I can change that just by telling you. And, practically, I’m going to be sticking around in here with you for a bit – Danny strangled you. There are a lot of risks with stuff like that - your throat could swell up and cut off your oxygen. So I’m going to keep an eye for a while.” He points vaguely over his shoulder – Martin manages to make out a ratty-looking armchair, newly placed in the corner. “I can see you’re probably not comfortable with having me on the bed, so I brought that in. I’ll be spending the night.”
Probably no chance of sleep, then, Martin decides.
“Sorry,” Tim offers, though Martin doesn’t think there had been a flicker of anything across his face. “I’d like to let you have some time to think, about what I said, about the Institute, and everything, by yourself, but...”
“Couldn’t just you get Jared Hopworth to fix me?” Martin asks, pointedly. “Make me like you?”
“It wasn’t very fun, Martin,” he ventures, attention flickering away for the first time. “I’m not far gone enough to want to do that to you. Don’t know if I’ll ever be, with the Stranger how it is now. Danny’s like a leopard bringing half-dead antelopes home for her cubs. We do what’s necessary and try not to attract too much attention.”
“So you’re saying you’re not that bad.” Martin’s scepticism’s a little too rough for his voice, and he swallows a hiss.
“No,” Tim says. “I’m… I need fear to live. What I used to think – I mean, I didn’t understand so much then, but I probably would have called myself evil. I’m saying that it’s not changed me enough that you aren’t different.” He shuffles his hands in his lap, clears his throat. “Is that feeling any better? You sound... not so bad.”
Martin gives a vague nod, and rolls awkwardly onto his side, facing away from Tim. Better that Tim not be able to read in his expression that momentary impulse to ask him to touch again.
The bruises heal, and it feels like they do it quickly. After they’ve faded past memories, Tim doesn’t stay in the room with him anymore. He’d done his best not to too intrusive a presence, to settle to the side with his crosswords or his phone, and Martin had in turn done what he could to completely ignore him.
It’s been difficult, though, to not think about what it was that Tim had said to him, about the Institute, the Lonely and the Eye. The way it feels, after he reads a statement. The way that’s changed, from the early days, the shock of it, the aftereffects of someone else’s terror, finding the cracks in his own head. How smooth they can be, now. Those few stilted conversations with Peter, the way he’d watched him.
Tim’s probably right. There’s no way of staying at the Institute that doesn’t end up with him something else. Taking steps so that he doesn’t have to be afraid anymore, so that he and Melanie and Basira will be able to walk around outside the Institute again without checking every passing stranger for a closed eye pendant. No more people lost like Tim and Daisy and Jon.
Martin wants to believe him, he realises. As much as he wants to snarl at the idea of Tim deciding his future for him, he’d wanted guidance. Wanted Jon to wake up and make it all better, somehow. And Tim isn’t Jon, but Martin had been looking at the wrong one of them for so long, and he shouldn’t be anymore.
Sometimes, this Tim is so heartbreakingly familiar that he wants to turn over and cry into a knot of pillow and folded arms. Sometimes he isn’t. Even if none of it’s physical, and barely anything in his manner, there are new edges to him that Martin doesn’t like, as though he’d been turned in a rock tumbler, some of the angles of his ethics knocked out.
But just because it seems like some of the bits that Martin was fond of are still there, he tells himself, though the voice he says it in is quieter now, doesn’t mean that this is anything like the same person. It’s not Tim, as much a person as Elias is, and Martin had felt how much that isn’t true dragged across his eyes, had had pinned them open to make sure he could see it.
Tim tries, though. Elias had stopped bothering, once they’d found out what he was. The Stranger, Martin tells himself, is all about the pretence, all about that distance being just small enough to feed off; the uncanny doesn’t work if it isn’t almost right. But Tim seems to do everything he can not to scare him, and some days Martin forgets that he’s meant to be.
At one point, he walks into Martin’s room carrying a box that rattles, waves it at him, and grins.
“You like jigsaws, right?” he says. “I’m sure I remember something like that.”
Martin considers the one he’s holding – it has far too many pieces, far smaller than most of the people at his mother’s care home would have been able to cope with. Not an engaging picture, either, if the box is anything to go by – mostly sky, with more sky reflected in the water of a canal. Clearly meant to exist only as a challenge, rather than something that would be worth looking at when it’s finished.
“Sure,” he says, anyway. It’s something different from lying there or standing at the window or not knowing the answers to any of Tim’s crossword clues.
Tim beams, steps back again to pull the door open, hold it wide.
“Come on, then,” he says. “Danny’s out. We can do it on the table.”
Martin stares at him for a long time, but he doesn’t waver. Seems to forget to blink.
“Out there?” he asks, after a minute with nothing changing.
“Yeah.” Tim blinks. “We need a flat surface. You okay to come out?”
Martin goes. He pays more attention to the flat, this time around – it’s far easier when he can breathe properly. It’s still sparse, but there are a few more things in it now: an ironing board, a stack of hardback books, and an empty fish tank sitting on a shelf against one wall. An odd way of going about furnishing, he thinks, and wonders, off-hand, whether they’re actually going shopping for it, how they’re paying. He considers asking, but Tim is already sorting the jigsaw box out onto the table. Doesn’t seem to be paying him any attention at all.
Martin glances towards the door. There’s no Danny today. He’s probably going to be gone a while – long enough for them to get a thousand-piece jigsaw done. He could make a run for it, probably get somewhere. Tim’s not of the Eye, not prone to small, random knowledges – Martin could stay hidden from him, could keep himself under the radar all the way back to the Institute. They might not even be able to get to him there, if the Stranger really is that weak. Maybe by now, Jon will have woken up – maybe, he’d be pleased to see him.
But then, Tim might be angry. Might reconsider whatever plan he had not to hurt him. It rings false as a reason in Martin’s head – Tim’s still lucid, still close to himself as Martin remembers. It’s more that he might be a well-painted mockery of Martin’s soulmate, but that’s more than he has at the Institute. Jon, who barely notices he’s there, even when he isn’t off somewhere, chasing another apocalypse. Melanie, who’d scarcely been anything but unpleasant the whole time that he’d known her. Basira, who was quiet and watching and grieving Daisy in far too familiar a way for Martin to be comfortable seeing.
There’s more of Tim here than there is of anything he wants there.
Martin quietly takes the seat at the table, when Tim pulls it out for him, and starts to search through the pile of pieces for any corner or edge bits. He feels Tim’s eyes on him for a long second, and has to fight not to go still. Then it passes, and Tim’s making his own start on the jigsaw.
He doesn’t seem to obey any sort of system, the way Martin does – there’s no grouping pieces by colour or shading or shape. Instead, he’ll add a bit every couple of minutes, but seems to spend more time watching Martin than anything else. When Martin sneaks a glance up at him, he thinks the look on his face might be something close to fond.
“You didn’t really talk about yourself much, at the Institute,” he says. “It seemed like you were, but you hardly ever did.”
“Neither did you,” Martin points out. Tim had talked plenty, about his dates or his architecture, and even Jon in the heights of his paranoia hadn’t realised what he wasn’t saying.
“Hm,” Tim says. “Maybe we’re a better fit than I thought.” He reaches for Martin’s hand, then pauses, halfway across the distance, stuck in between. “I’d… like to learn more about you. If I can.”
“Didn’t think learning was your thing anymore,” Martin says. He isn’t sure how he means it, if it’s intended as a dig or a refusal or outright curiosity.
“Not exactly,” Tim says. “But I like to think I’m not only what it’s made of me.”
Martin doesn’t respond. He wouldn’t know where to start explaining himself, random bits of trivia that he’s not sure have any bearing on him as a person, or bigger things that he’s sure does but hasn’t the words to go into.
Tim doesn’t press, just sits there, in a near-comfortable quiet. He occasionally slots a piece into place without looking, like he’s already learnt the puzzle. Waits for Martin to fill in the last one – when he does, he smiles like Martin’s just professed his love, leans in against the table, in close. Martin freezes, his brain stilling at the idea that he’s about to be kissed, but Tim just picks up the lid of the box, to compare the example image with what they’ve put together.
He shakes his head, slightly, stares down into the puzzle, trying to memorise the cloud shapes. It’s a lot easier than trying to think what Tim’s lips would have felt like on his.
Martin actually starts to look forward to spending time with Tim. He tries to keep the realisation out of his head, but it’s next to impossible to pretend he’s imagined the way his chest lifts at the sight of him, the way he can’t push the smile off his face, when Tim grins so brightly in response that Martin forgets where he is.
The next best thing is pretending he doesn’t know it’s a problem, and that’s easy enough to do, right up until he can’t. It had all starts off normally enough – Tim comes in, asks for permission to sit at the end of the bed, just like always, and Martin had gives it. He’s distracted, wondering if Tim’ll ever ask to be anywhere else, and he notices a bright gash of colour on the underside of Tim’s sleeve, towards his elbow.
Martin’s mood sinks like a thrown stone. It’s a stark, dour red. Recent, Martin thinks. He stares at it, watching as it slowly dries rust-brown, and feels the headache starting in the clench of his jaw. Tim talks to him, but Martin has no idea what he’s saying, the noise washing over him like fine drizzle. His voice is upbeat, calm, as close to how Martin likes to remember him as it’s possible to be.
“Hungry?” Martin asks, sour and prodding.
“What?” Tim frowns, cut off mid-sentence, takes a moment to adjust. “If you want anything, I can head to the shops, or see if Danny will pick anything up. He’s had to go out, but I could text–”
“No,” Martin says, spits out the syllables. “You.”
“Oh.” Tim glances back over his shoulder, towards the rest of the flat, like he’s trying to work out what they have. “Not really? I could get us a takeaway if you like, though, it’s been a while since I’ve had one of those–”
“I mean,” Martin says, acidly, gesturing at Tim’s sleeve. “You have already eaten.”
Tim blinks, then slowly pulls his shirt around to look at it. He studies it, with a perfect frown on his face, like he’d had no idea it was there, hasn’t a clue what it might be.
“I know what it is,” Martin announces. “So don’t–”
“This wasn’t eating,” Tim says.
“Don’t lie to me,” Martin snaps, thoughts sparking like a poked fire. “You’re a monster, you eat people, one way or another, and–”
“I honestly didn’t get any juice from this,” Tim says, and Martin can hardly stand to look at his face, see that flicker of a wounded expression. “Danny’s not getting much out of it either, and I just… help.”
“What was it, then?” Martin demands.
Tim hesitates, glances around him, and then shuffles a little closer, winces when Martin pulls away.
“After the House of Wax,” he says, hushed, like he’s worried he’ll be overheard. “There weren’t a lot of us who... came out again. Afterwards. Danny thought he was the only one, that I was all he had left, but... one or two of the others did make it. They found us. But they’re in a really, really bad way, and they need... repairs.”
“Repairs,” Martin echoes. He feels like the insides of his ribs are lined with thorns, can’t keep that out of his voice. “That’s a really nice way to say that you’re butchering, killing innocent people.”
“Nothing gets wasted,” Tim says, sharply. He pushes himself off the bed, starts to pace. “Nothing at all. That includes their minds, who they are. We don’t kill anyone. And would you prefer that Danny went for people who weren’t innocent? Give a murderer or two the Stranger’s gifts?”
“Maybe,” Martin says, pushing himself more upright. “At least then you wouldn’t be making more murderers.”
“You seemed happy enough to look after Jon,” Tim says, pausing for a moment, facing the other way. Then he starts moving again, short, tight step after step. “Followed after him when he was hurting me, kept visiting even after you found out about the dreams.”
“Jon doesn’t hurt anyone,” Martin says, the defence springing easily to his lips.
“No,” Tim agrees. “Not physically. He just consigns them to a lifetime of nightly torture, I’m sure that’s a lot nicer.” He’s talking through gritted teeth now, the angriest he’s been at Martin since Danny had taken him. “How many statements has he taken now?”
“I know you have to feed–”
“I don’t feed by killing people.” Tim says it slowly, like he’s talking to a child. “What good would that do me? People are afraid of me for about two seconds, and then they’re done. The Stranger wouldn’t get anything out of it. I’m not strong enough to do what they would have done before. It’s just skulking around, picking off scraps. I make the things you know unfamiliar. I’m like the monstrous equivalent of do you ever really look at your hand? – how is that so much worse than Jon?”
“Jon hasn’t been reassembling people,” Martin knots his fingers into the sheets, squeezes. “You said you didn’t waste anything, but whatever you’re doing is enough to make them bleed. The Tim I remember would never have– ”
“The Tim you remember is still here!” Tim stops in front of him, stares down, breathing hard. “He walked into the House of Wax and blew it up and his brother put him back together. I’m still me. Just like the Martin I remember is still there.”
“He would never,” Martin repeats, trying to strengthen the surety in his head. “He’d have...” Died before he became you, he thinks, can’t let himself say it. “So don’t you come in here, having just... vivisected someone, and try to make excuses for it.”
“They’re almost all fixed,” Tim says. “Soon we won’t have to do it anymore-”
“I’m not concerned about whether or not you’re going to keep doing it!” Martin drags in a breath, forces himself to lower his voice. “I’m concerned that you have done it. More than once. And that you seem to think it’s okay.”
“It’s not that different from people agreeing to donate organs–”
“What, did you check them for a donor card? Use anaesthetic?”
“I did what I could,” Tim says. He turns away again, but this time his pacing takes him to the door, and out through it. He slams it without a backwards glance, and Martin sits, ramrod straight, and glares after him. Tries not to feel the pricking of tears at the edges of his eyes.
He’s alone for the rest of the evening, stewing in his own anger. When the door opens again, he’s got something sharp and bitter-tasting ready on his tongue, but it’s not Tim – it’s Danny, tall and broad-shouldered, and with his top lip twitching towards a snarl. As he strides into the room, Martin looks for Tim behind him, but all he can make out is an empty flat. He scrambles to his feet, breath quickening, as the door slams shut again so hard that Martin can feel the vibration of it in the floor. Danny’s expression darkens further at the sight of the empty handcuff, his hands clenching into fists at his sides.
“You upset him,” he growls, the words barely discernible. He keeps coming, backs Martin up into the wall and looms into his space.
“What?” Martin tries to edge out sideways, but Danny’s arm snaps out to block him in. “Because I’m not happy he’s torturing people?”
Danny brings his face close, and Martin presses back – at such close proximity, he can see every twist of rage in Danny’s expression, can hear his breath scratching between his teeth.
“He’s doing what he has to,” he says, distant-thunder low. “To help me. To get stronger, so he can look after you.”
“I can look after myself,” Martin mutters, and he can feel in it a shade of how he’s spoken to Elias.
“Can you?” Danny’s hand darts out, wraps around Martin’s throat again – not rough, not this time, there’ll be no bruises for Tim to argue with him over, but it’s enough to make his point. He traces his fingers over Martin’s pulse point, and Martin swallows against joints he’s sure are at the wrong angles. “Like he told you, it’ll be done soon. But I want to get something straight.” He lets go, so abruptly that Martin forgets how to breathe for a moment. Before he can adjust, Danny has hold of his wrist. He drags him sideways by it, and the cuff circles again, cold and tight. “He’s my brother. I brought you here because I thought it’d make him happy. You stop making him happy, and I’ll find him something that will.”
Martin’s body finds new ways to cramp. Danny had cuffed him awkwardly, at a twisted sort of angle, and he’s lying there for hours. Pain lurks at the edges of his muscles, intermittently pushing through into a still, resolute agony that he has no way of shifting.
His next visitor is quiet, so much so that he almost doesn’t notice them, thoughts caught up in a flare-up of pins-and-needles in one of his legs. He opens one eye at a splay of light across his face, and cranes around to recognise Tim’s shape, half-silhouetted.
As much as he’s able, he relaxes. He can’t, won’t, believe that this is the same soulmate he’d lost, but he believes him when he says he won’t hurt him, for the moment at least. Tim’s had plenty of opportunities and excuses to force him to bend to his will, and instead he’s been gentle at every turn.
Tim stands over him in exactly the same pose that Danny had used earlier, waits there for a long moment, eyes darting across Martin’s face, like he’s trying to check he’s listening.
“Martin,” he says, eventually. It sounds rehearsed, like he’s been working through it in his head for every hour Martin’s been cuffed, but still has an odd hesitant edge. “I… I’ve told you a lot about what’s been happening. I could probably tell you more, but I don’t think it’s going to make any difference if you’ve already made your mind up, so…”
He brings something out from behind his back. Martin squints at it for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust, and then flinches. It’s a long, thin knife, the blade glimmering in the scant light, nicked in a few places, but still perfectly serviceable. Tim holds it out for a moment, like he’s checking the balance, then he flicks it around, and holds the handle out towards Martin.
“If you really think there’s nothing left of me,” he says. “If you really think I’m so far gone, that I’m not your soulmate anymore – then kill me.”
Martin stares. Waits a while to see if he wakes up, but the scene remains stubbornly undissolving.
“Would that even work?” he asks, eventually, voice fading out.
“Be interesting to find out,” Tim says, with a shrug that pulls the reflections along the blade, makes them dance over the ceiling. “But either way, I wouldn’t come after you.”
“Bit of a shitty choice,” Martin says, guardedly. “What, I kill you, and then Danny kills me?” He wrenches pointedly at the handcuff, his muscles sending a protest up into his shoulder.
Tim follows the gesture, a frowns digging into his forehead. Then he drops the knife down at Martin’s side like it’s a child’s toy, and leans over him, reaching to unlock it. He has to climb half-onto the bed to get to it, his weight dipping the mattress.
“There,” he says, when he’s freed him. He glances down at Martin as he speaks, face barely inches away. “Front door’s unlocked. Danny’s going to be out until morning. We’re about three hours’ journey from the Institute. You’ll be able to make it back there before he comes home. So.” He reaches down, takes Martin’s freed hand, presses the handle of the knife into it, closes his fingers. His grip is still warm, still gentle. “Like I said. If you don’t think I’m here anymore, put me out of my misery. Go back where you think you’re meant to be. I promise I won’t come after you.”
Martin feels the weight of the knife, and wonders how it would feel. It should be difficult, he thinks, to stab someone, to cut them so deeply they won’t get up again. He isn’t Jon. He doesn’t want to know how much force it’ll take, doesn’t want to measure or record or learn this.
“Or,” Tim goes on. He isn’t even looking at the weapon, all his focus on Martin. “You can accept me for what I am now. I don’t think it’s that different. But if you disagree, you know what you’ve got to do.”
Martin looks up at him, into his eyes, in a foolish poet’s hope of finding some truth there. They’re the same colour as they always were, and he wonders distantly how they had managed that, if Jared Hopworth was just that good, or if they’d had to go and find a match.
Tim doesn’t press any nearer. He just waits, his touch ghosting away from Martin’s hand. Waiting for Martin to kill him, leave him. Forsake a monster or his soulmate, for the second time.
Martin should, he decides. Tim’s hurting people, no matter what he thinks – maybe it wouldn’t make any difference, maybe it really is mostly Danny and all Tim ever does is worry people, but if Tim’s putting more suffering in the world than he’s taking out, it’s probably not just the right thing to do, but Martin’s responsibility. The Tim he’d known from before would have asked him to, had found everything about the Institute evil, had died to avenge his brother from likely the very same thing that he’s now visiting on others.
But he looks like Tim, and he sounds like Tim, and he smiles and thinks like Tim and maybe, maybe those changes would have come anyway. Perhaps it won’t be that different from being at the Institute – maybe Tim can still do good, will do good, despite what he is. He’d believe it for Jon.
But there had been blood on Tim’s sleeve, and he’d lied, and even if Martin is no stranger to making excuses, that will never be right.
Martin closes the distance between them fast, impulsive, trying to move within the space of a breath, before he can change his mind. He kisses Tim, as hard as he can. The angle isn’t great, but Tim adjusts almost immediately, leans down into it like he’s been waiting for it for years.
Martin had thought, occasionally, tried not to, that it would be like kissing a statue. That no matter how human he seemed, Tim wouldn’t be the same on the inside, but he’s warm and human, and when his tongue flickers over Martin’s lips, it doesn’t feel anything but right. Somewhere far-off, the knife clatters to the ground over the edge of the bed.
When they break apart, Martin’s breathless, lightheaded. Tim’s still steady, reaches down to find Martin’s now-empty hand – he brings it to his mouth, and brushes his lips lightly over the spilled words that he’s already said.
“So,” he says, in the seconds between. “I think that was a no to killing me, but…?"
Martin reaches up to pull him back down into a kiss, and he needs no further persuasion – he settles over him, touch wandering down and underneath his shirt. He pulls it off him, over his head, a short moment where Martin has his mouth to himself and wonders what the fuck he’s doing, but then Tim is unfastening his jeans, stroking along the length of his cock, and it’s easiest to forget all that, just let Tim swallow the whine from his throat.
Tim finishes stripping him, quick and efficient, while Martin runs his fingers through his hair, traces the planes of his face, wonders at it all.
“You want to do this?” Tim asks, one hand undoing his own trousers, while the other skims over Martin’s skin, light enough to set sparks going through his stomach, the heat catching in the rest of him. “I’ve got some, uh…” He leans awkwardly off to the side, rummaging for something in the bedside table, and Martin takes the opportunity to crane up and kiss at the place where Tim’s collarbone starts to disappear under his shirt. He remembers that Tim probably shouldn’t still be wearing that, hesitates, then reaches for the hem.
Tim’s chest is as smooth and undamaged as the rest of him – Martin counts his ribs, rests a palm against his sternum, is so focussed on feeling for the beat of his heart that it’s almost a surprise when Tim slides a careful, slick finger into him. He shifts, surprised, and Tim touches his shoulder.
“Easy,” he says. “Still don’t want to hurt you.” He pauses, flickers Martin a smirk, crooks the finger inside him, making Martin’s hips jump in response. “Unless that’s what you’re into. But for now I think we should just…” He runs a hand along the back of Martin’s thigh, guiding, and Martin hitches his legs up, spreads them wide enough for Tim.
He’s as gentle as he’s been the whole time – when he first starts to push into Martin, it’s so slow that Martin wants to snap at him, plead with him to get it over with, but if he opens his mouth, Tim shifts a little, stretching him wider, and any chance at words is lost in sensation, something like heat curling out, touching every part of him.
The first time he thrusts properly, Martin cries out, bites hard at his lip, trying to stifle himself – Tim sets a steady, even rhythm, punctuates it all with faint touches to Martin’s cock, enough to push out every thought in his head.
Then, he stops, when he’s deep enough in Martin to fill him completely. Martin groans, tightens his legs around Tim’s waist, trying to encourage him to keep going, but Tim just finds his hand, pulls it away from where it rests against his skin, and starts to kiss along the stains on his palm again.
Martin’s blood seems to ignite at the contact – he comes, gasping out something wordless that had started in his brain as Tim’s name. Tim waits a moment, studying the ink-spill of their bond like he’s trying to memorise the patterns of it. Then he smiles down at Martin, leans in to kiss him again. He’s coming himself after two more thrusts, hard and bright in Martin’s mind.
He pulls out, trailing semen down Martin’s legs, and lies down beside him. Martin wraps an arm around him, pulls him in closer. As he does so, he notices a scar along the back of Tim’s shoulder – he shifts him around to kiss at it, and feels Tim shiver under his lips.
“That’s where mine were,” he murmurs. “Well. Yours. Jared couldn’t get them off as cleanly as the rest of it.”
Martin can see, amongst the scar tissue, a single dark stroke. He tries to extrapolate out the rest of the letters around it, draws possibilities against Tim’s skin.
“You don’t have to worry,” Tim promises. He turns over, obscuring the mark from sight, then runs his thumb over Martin’s lower lip. “They aren’t ever happening.”
Martin wakes cold. The bed’s empty next to him, the only sign of Tim a faint shape on the mattress. He can’t swallow a pang, at that – it shouldn’t be like this. Tim should be there, and they should have a good, slow morning, with no regrets. Instead, the flat is silent, he has to forage about for his clothes in hope of warmth, and there’s no one to share his aches with.
He pulls the blankets in a little closer around him, and hopes that Tim will be back soon. The hours trickle by, and he dozes in and out of consciousness, until the crash of the door snaps him back to himself so hard that he startles fully awake, eyes wide.
The noise is loud and angry, but the shape in the doorway is nothing like either Danny or Tim – he squints at it, tries to prove himself wrong, but then there’s a voice calling, and it definitely doesn’t belong to either of them.
“Jon! I’ve got him!”
Basira. Martin closes his eyes, lets his head thump back onto the pillow, and tries to school his expression. Despair isn’t the correct response to a rescue, after all. But it’s what he feels, swamping through everywhere that the liquid joy of that night with Tim had touched.
A minute later, the mattress dips, and there’s a hesitant touch at his arm.
“Martin?” Jon’s voice. It’s soft, gentle, more tentative than Martin has ever heard it, especially over his own name.
He forces himself to look, to allow Jon to help him into a sitting position. He looks terrible, sleepless nights etched onto his features, a wildness at the edges of his expression that fades as he gazes at Martin, leaving a knot of concern at his forehead, like he’s afraid Martin might break.
His hand ghosts along Martin’s cheek, then settles there, reverent. Martin stays still and lets it happen, knows that once his whole body would have sang with this touch. It’s not Jon’s fault he can barely muster a melody, compared to how it had felt with Tim.
“Thank god,” he says, raw, aching voice scratching like an exposed nerve. Martin wants to smile for him, can’t manage to paint the expression onto his face. “I was so worried, I thought – I’m so glad you’re– You are all right?”
“Fine,” Martin says, but his tone’s flat. He can tell Jon doesn’t believe him. He wouldn’t believe himself, either. It’s not as if it’s true. “How did you find me?”
“I... I just knew it,” Jon says, gesturing vaguely with his other hand, trying to indicate something Martin can’t see. “I’ve been trying since I woke up, and things finally just... fell into place.” He exhales, hard. Pulls Martin into a hug, holds him tight against his chest. “I missed you.”
“Sure,” Martin manages, painfully.
Jon helps him up – Martin doesn’t need it, but Jon’s fussing like he’s been taking lessons, and it’s easier to just not wave him off than try to explain any of what’s in his head. Basira’s waiting in the flat, studying that empty fish tank, her eyes narrowed.
Martin glances around, searching for any sign of what had happened. There are no scuffs along the floor, no blood spattered against the walls. The only indication of anything is the chain from the door, now lying twisted on the floor. It looks to him like it’s been wrenched off, as though someone too strong had tried to get out too carelessly.
Perhaps, he thinks, Danny had seen Jon coming. Had decided to flee, and they hadn’t had time to come back for Martin, or hadn’t been able to risk that Jon wouldn’t stop coming for him. The Archivist. Perhaps he could have hurt them, would have hurt them.
The jigsaw is still out on the table, half of it torn up. Martin shuffles over to it, leaves Jon talking with Basira, hushed voices that he doesn’t think they want him to hear. It’s the wrong box, sitting next to the puzzle – instead of the one with the example design, the pieces have been loaded into a discoloured tupperware container.
Martin skims the top layer aside. The phone that Tim had got him sits underneath, flashing with a text alert. He fishes it out, turns the screen on for just long enough to read the message.
Martin looks up, slides the phone into his jeans pocket, out of sight. He blinks numbly at Jon’s worried face, can’t remember hearing a question.
“You know who had you?” Basira repeats, in a patient, sympathetic tone that she must have perfected in a career of talking to victims.
Martin breathes out hard, shakes his head.
“Just a monster,” he says, and hopes that Jon can’t feel the shape of his thoughts. He would see the pain of being pulled back to the Institute, the frigid absence of the warm glow that should have come with seeing Jon again, and worst of all, the face of his monster.
They don’t push him. Jon insists on helping him, promises to get him home with his best attempt at a reassuring smile. Martin looks blankly back, and wonders how long Jon will let him lie for.