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A Measure Outside the Lines

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“I need to be emptied of this love—as it’s feasting on my blood. And splintering my bones. And, my God—the rest of me—it owns, it owns, it owns…” –Helaena Moon

 

----

 

Jon never lets go of Martin’s hand as they cut a path through the dull blanket of fog wreathing around their bodies.  Every few seconds, Martin tightens his fingers and presses their palms hard together, and feels Jon squeeze back in quiet reassurance.  

Slowly, colour begins bleeding through the muted greyscale surrounding them, brightens the rich, coppery undertone of Jon’s skin. He looks better than Martin has seen him in months, when he’s managed to see Jon at all, that is.  He looks well.  Radiant, somehow. The bruised circles under his eyes seem to have retreated, and he doesn’t have that  frayed, manic bearing of the last time they’d seen each other--Jon’s tie undone, the hem of his shirt rumpled and half untucked, hair askew, proposing Eye Gouging and Running Away Together with ink stains on his hands.  

Perhaps an avatar is a better meal than old statements, Martin supposes, and he wonders how long it might sustain Jon before he needs to Eat again.

Jon must notice the way reality is falling back into place too, because his gaze keeps drifting over to Martin and fixating on his hair, his eyes, the maroon hoodie that doesn’t match the shirt underneath which Martin threw on this morning because it was the only clean one left. Neither of them mention it out loud though, too afraid to jinx whatever it is leading them away from this place. Martin only knows, with a sense of conviction deeper than the instinct to breathe , that they mustn’t let go of one another.  To let go would be the wrong way.  

It’s only when light casts itself against Martin’s cheek and warms his skin, that he dares to hope they’ve made it beyond the realm. He doesn’t remember being cold before, but then again, he hadn’t been able to feel much of anything in the clutches of The Lonely.  There had been only that listless sense of detachment and resignation, the blue prickle of sadness lining his edges in all its intense familiarity.  

Within that place, Martin had the vague idea they were somewhere close to the sea.  The sound of the tide washing in had been the single discernible note amidst the static, but he’d never found the shoreline, or felt sediment beneath his knees, and when he’d found himself kneeling on the ground, even the specificity of texture had eluded him.  

Martin drags his shoes and hears the susurrus of shingle being rearranged underfoot.  Where moments ago, every sound came out subdued and rebounding against the haze, they now emerge crisp and sharp.  Part of him wants to reach down to grab a handful of those smooth, cobbled pebbles, place them in his pocket in some irrational effort to weigh himself down to this plane.  But that would mean losing the anchor of Jon’s touch and such a thing still seems impossible.

They stop walking when the embankment of mist peels away and reveals the green-grey expanse of the channel before them.  The foamed caps of waves lap against the shore, and the firmament is already beginning its long swallow of the sun as it sets in the distance.

“We’re out,” Jon whispers, as if he’s having trouble believing it, then laughs in relief.  “We made it, Martin.” A frown. “Not sure where we’ve made it to, exactly.  I rather thought we’d end up back at the Panopticon. Hm.”

Martin, on the other hand, recognises this place instantly.  “We’re in Kent,” he says, then huffs a delirious giggle. “Dungeness beach.”

“How on earth did we end up in Kent.”

“I think,” Martin chews his bottom lip, “I think I might have brought us here?  Or it’s where I was cast off into, some parallel version of it. Dunno quite how it works, honestly. Peter wasn’t exactly keen on details.”  He looks over his shoulder, knowing he’ll see the weather-worn hamlet dotting over the hill, the power station beyond it. “I lived here for a year,” he explains, “was a long time ago, of course, right before my mum was diagnosed with MS.  My dad, he took a job with one of the plants and-- well. This is the last place we were a family.”

Jon squeezes Martin’s hand harder, and he isn’t pressing for any more justification than that, but Martin feels compelled to have it said out loud regardless.  Not for Jon, but for himself, as if sharing it might further sever those last remaining threads between him and The Lonely. Take away some of the claim it has over him.

“Don’t remember much from that time actually, couldn’t have been more than six or seven.  I know mum didn’t love it, she missed Rishton--though I’m not sure how anyone could miss Rishton.  Nothing to do there, but stare at each other and fight,” Martin adds, and Jon lets out an amused huff, “but… We were happy.  I think we might have been, at least. Suppose that’s why Peter sent me here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” Martin purses his lips, thinks. “It’s the last memory of its kind--feels sort of like a threshold for all that came after,” and the unfocused image of a perfect day pops suddenly into Martin’s mind’s eye:

 

 His mother posing with him in front of the lighthouse. The bright red cherry pattern stitched into her sundress, matching her lipstick.  His father fiddling with the tripod and switching on the camera delay before running into the frame alongside them. His hand steady and warm on Martin’s shoulder to still his fidgeting. 

The picnic afterward. Their laughter carried away with the wind.

His father pouring cheap wine into two plastic cups.  The gulls crying out overhead.

Being chased by waves, the seaspray leaping onto Martin’s bare feet. 

The way the wind whipped his mother’s dark, curly hair in all directions, and how when his father leaned in to kiss her cheek, Martin had felt the type of security that only comes from knowing you are completely loved, and completely safe.

He hadn’t known then that in a few short months, his childhood would come to an abrupt, unceremonious end. Or how hindsight would paint this memory as the delusions of a little boy, too unobservant to notice the distant, red flags signalling the change of tide.  It never occurred to him why his father had begun to come home later and later, and drink more and more, or the weeks his mother would rarely leave the bed.  How her hands would spasm while holding a glass of water, or why there was fear in her eyes as Martin watched her clear away each glinting shard when the glass shattered onto the floor.

Then his father was gone, just gone, leaving Martin with a mother who couldn’t bear the sight of him. He’d pressed her for answers at first, but she’d become upset, sometimes crying, or yelling, or worse--saying nothing at all. He’d only wanted to know when his father would be coming back, he wasn’t trying to be cruel.  Martin couldn’t comprehend why his mother wouldn’t look at him when he stood in front of her, begging her for answers. She never told him the one thing parents are supposed to say in situations like these: It’s not your fault. 

She should have told him.  She should have said that.

  Instead, she let resentment and silence fester in the strange walls she put up between them.   That was where Martin first began to understand that people can be distant, even when you’re seated right next to them, and they don’t need to be wrenched away into a nothing-place in order to disappear right in front of you. Perhaps it was there, if anywhere, that loneliness began first taking up space--right there between the bones and beams, in the seams of their home. 

It’s difficult to grasp the true nature of isolation, unless you have first known what it is to have a life inhabited by love.  Then, to feel that love removed piece by piece, until a thick silence takes up its place in the middle of you--it’s a complete restructuring of the heart that must occur. He’d known instantly, that this is what had drawn Peter Lukas to him--clear as any boatswain call. 

Still. Martin had searched endlessly for that picture of them together at the lighthouse-- desperately needed some proof of that one, perfect day.  But it had disappeared, along with all other evidence of the people they had once been. There was something very, very vicious about being robbed of this.  He had been left with nothing--wasn’t even sure until this moment if the memory was real, or just the invention of a lonely child who needed some shred of comfort.

 

He feels it the instant Jon withdraws from him, a hasty snap along Martin’s subconscious, something that isn’t of his own doing.  It’s an abrupt exit, enough for Martin to let out a sharp gasp at the way the images crumple inward on themselves without Jon there to draw them into clarity.

“Christ Jon, a little warning next time,” he scolds.

“I--I’m sorry,” Jon stammers out, voice unsteady, squeezes his eyes closed and takes a deep breath, “for all of it, I mean. Not just.. It just happens sometimes, whether I’m trying to Know or not, it--” he makes a frustrated sound with his mouth.  

“S’all right. I’ve gotten used to it by now,” Martin tries, “really, you’ve been in my dreams since Prentiss, I hardly notice anymore. It’s not really--” oh shit, no, that’s not helping at all.  Jon flinches, eyes miserable and apologetic.  

Martin hadn’t meant the Seeing anyway , he’d only meant the way Jon slammed the door behind himself on the way out. Martin has never really minded the way Jon’s presence casts shadows in the corners of his mind.  Not like the others. Not that he blames them for it. Martin knows how invasive it can feel. Elias saw to that. But where Elias had been a scalpel, a piercingly hateful force that honed in on pain with surgical precision-- Jon’s Seeing has only ever been an idle presence, warm and lingering at the peripheral of Martin’s mind. 

“It’s fine,” Martin says, “seriously. Though for your own good, I’d steer clear of my East 17 phase,” he clicks his tongue regretfully, “I had Robbie Craig posters on the walls.  Singing in front of the mirror in my pants might have been involved. I don’t recommend it for a third course.”

Jon’s face brightens considerably at this, he tries to hide a smile by looking at the ground. “Sounds like dark times.”

“Humiliating, mostly? Speaking of, can I borrow twenty quid?”

“Sure,” Jon’s free hand goes to his back pocket, “wait, what for?”

“I left my things at the archive. Didn’t exactly think when I went down into the tunnels that I would be coming out in Kent.”  He didn’t really think he’d be coming back to anywhere at all.  “We’ll need to take the train back into London.”

Jon begins shaking his head at this, already gearing up for a ramble.

“I mean, yeah, we should definitely not stay in London. Section 31 will have us, or Elias--Jonah-- god how many things are chasing us at the moment?”

“I’m losing count,” Jon mutters, brings up their conjoined hands and uses the first knuckle of Martin’s thumb to push his specs back up onto the bridge of his nose.  He furrows his brow when he notices this, stares at the seam between their palms and asks quietly, “Would you prefer I let go now? I--”

“No,” Martin says immediately, then, “unless you’d--”

“No,” Jon says, just as quickly.  “I can still… sense it on you.” He looks Martin over for a moment, concern etched into the set of his face. “Don’t do that to me again,” he says suddenly, all his anxiety pouring out at once.  “First Sasha, then Tim. Melanie hates me, Georgie won’t speak to me, and c hrist , Daisy, god knows what she sacrificed to save us,” his eyes go red limned and watery, voice brittle and wavering at the edges. “I thought I’d lost you. You shouldn’t have done that for me, not for me.”  

Of course for you, Martin thinks helplessly, but says, “All right Jon,” gentle about it, and rubs his thumb over Jon’s white knuckled grasp.  “I won’t.” 

Jon exhales roughly, gives a small roll of his eyes.  “You’re just saying that,” he mutters.

“No, I’ll let you take on all the avatars at once next time, swear. Even lend you my corkscrew.”

Jon snorts and shakes his head, “Is it awful to say I miss it being as simple as that?” He straightens his shoulders and readjusts his grip. “Come on. Do you remember if any cabs run here?”

 

---

 

They meet with Basira in some shithole pub in Hounslow.  There’s damp stains overhead, and the lino could do with a solid mopping because Martin’s shoes make sticking sounds every time he lifts a foot.  It’s the sort of place where the barkeep might make a grab for your collar from across the bench if you were to order anything more complicated than a pint of bitter.  

Jon moves their chairs closer together, softly taps the top of Martin’s hand until Martin turns his palm up and gratefully interlaces their fingers.  The numbness in the center of Martin’s chest immediately starts to dissipate, and Jon lets out a relieved exhale as if he, too, can feel it being siphoned away.  Martin wonders how long he’ll need to maintain contact before he stops feeling the loss of it in such a strangely visceral way.

When Basira slips past the door, she’s quick to note all the exits, eyes skimming along the walls with practiced tacticality.  She shrugs two medium sized overnight bags from her shoulder as she slides into the chair across from them, uses a foot to push the bags underneath the table.

“Do you think you were followed?” Jon asks.

“Guess we’ll know soon enough,” she mumbles.  “Doubt the section would sanction an operation in broad daylight though, even at some grungy dive.  It’s Elias we need to watch out for, anyway. No one has seen him since he escaped Bedford-- no witnesses, no CCTV, it’s like he’s disappeared.  I’ve told them about the tunnels and they’re planning to send a team down, but that’s all I’ve got. They’re keen to find the two of you of course,” she says, mouth turning into a thin line, “for questioning.”

“The sort they drag you out into the woods for?” Martin asks, unable to quell a shrillness in his voice at the prospect, and looks at Jon out of the corner of his eye. They’d kill Jon. For what he is, they’d kill him.  A bubble of panic stirs in the pit of Martin’s stomach.

“Probably,” Basira admits.

Jon leans toward her, “...and Daisy?” he asks like he’s afraid to know the answer.

“Gone,” Basira says, cold and immediate, but Martin knows that tone.  He’s heard it issued from his own tongue these past months. It’s something used to create distance from a place where despair and hope are tangled impossibly around one another, and you never know which one of the two it is you fear most.  At least despair is the final answer to something, whereas hope can go on indefinitely, eventually driving you mad.

Martin can feel Jon begin to nervously bounce his foot under the table.  “Gone as in..?”

“As in gone, Jon.  I don’t know where, don’t even know if she’s still alive, or if there’s any of Daisy left inside whatever it was that--” Basira pushes back into her seat and shakes her head.  “That’s not why I’m here.” 

“I could try and.. Look for her,” Jon offers, then more softly, “she’s my friend, too.”

Basira’s expression falters for a single moment, before she hides it away.  “No, don’t even think about it. The less you See the better.” After a wary silence, Basira’s eyes lock with Martin’s.  “Jon, get us a round, won’t you? Looks dodgy this, us sitting in a pub and not a drink in sight.”

“Oh,” Jon says, confused at the turn of subject, but willing to defer to Basira’s assessment.  “Right. Right, I’ll just --” he clears his throat and faces Martin, “what will you have?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Martin decides after one look at taps,“if the Fosters is cold enough, maybe it won’t taste like they’ve funneled it from the urinal,” he says, trying to be optimistic.  He could definitely use a drink, but Martin finds it highly suspect whenever a pub neglects to post their FSA score in plain sight. 

“Basira?”

“Mai Tai,” she says, and plasters on a smile.

“Seriously?” Jon looks back toward the barman and hums uncertainly.  “You want me to order a Mai Tai… here.”  

Basira ignores this.  “Thanks Jon, off you go.”

Jon sighs and shakes his head, his hand slipping away, and the coldness returning in its place.

Martin folds his arms across his chest.  “I’ve been to the pub with you before, and never once seen you order a cocktail.”

“Yeah I know, he’ll be busy trying to negotiate that with the barman for the next five minutes.  The less he knows about where you’re going, the better.”

“You know he can just know things, right? He can’t always control it.”

“You’re better than any of us at hiding things from him.”

Martin rubs his temples.  “No, it’s just that I don't have much to hide.  Not anymore.”

“A few months ago I found him bloody-nosed and passed out cold behind his desk.  When he finally came round’ I asked just what he thought he was doing, and he said he was trying to See you.  Never seen anyone go through so much paracetamol in a day without needing their stomach pumped.”

“Jesus Christ,” Martin hisses, looks over his shoulder at Jon, “that’s not great, I--”  he can address Jon’s lack of self-preservation another day. Maybe Jon won’t call him out on how hypocritical it is.  “Look.. I had one foot in The Lonely at that point, maybe Jon couldn’t See past the veil. The Fears all have these.. I dunno.. defence mechanisms against each other.  It had nothing to do with me.”

“Even so,” Basira says, her arms folding across her chest, “he listens to you. You make him more-- well-- human, I suppose.”

“He is human,” Martin says, flat and defensive. “You’ve met other avatars before, does that--” he jerks his thumb over his shoulder to where Jon is beginning to gesticulate at the barman, his voice becoming increasingly distressed by the second.  “Does that look like a big scary vessel of pure evil to you? He’s just as scared as the rest of us, don’t talk about him like he isn’t human anymore.”

“He isn’t, though,” Basira answers, “Not completely, and you know it.” Basira closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.  “But you believe in that about him, wrong or not. I think you make him want to try harder to.. to hold on, or whatever.  I have to think that counts for something,” she admits, and it might actually be the nicest thing Basira has ever said to him.  She frowns, picks at the ragged end of a cuticle, and Martin has the sudden understanding that this goes beyond Jon. If there’s hope for Jon, then maybe there’s some hope for Daisy as well. 

Martin and Daisy never really got on.  In their early acquaintance she had a habit of threatening to kill everyone, mostly Jon, which automatically put Martin off.  Later though, she did make an effort, but Martin wasn’t in a place where he could latch onto that olive branch. It seemed even more unlikely that she and Jon appeared to have worked past their differences.  There was a bond between them after Jon had saved her from The Choke, to the point where Martin felt little pangs of envy when he managed to catch glimpses of them together: Daisy’s boots propped up on top of Jon’s desk, as they passed a bottle of tequila back and forth. The Archer’s playing just loud enough for Martin to hear past the door.  One of Jon’s rare smiles smothered behind a hand as Daisy animatedly explained what was going on, lo mein noodles dangling from her chopsticks.

“You’d be surprised what people can come back from,” Martin murmurs, and thinks of Jon lying on that hospital cot, no signs of life aside from the wild spiking of brain waves. The acute panic he’d felt when Jon kept not emerging from Too Close I Can Not Breathe, and how he’d snuck into the room when no one was looking to pile running tape recorders on top of the lid because obviously the bloody rib wasn’t enough.  He thinks of the moment Jon followed him through into The Lonely, knowing how foolish and dangerous it must have been, and every time--Jon came back.

“Yeah, we’ll see.” Basira uses her wrist to wipe under an eye, and then she’s pushing two sets of keys and a printed out set of directions across the table and into Martin’s space.  “Don’t ask where I got the car, it’s the blue one parked by the bins behind the pub. The other set of keys are for the cottage.”

Martin scans the red line on the printed map taking them from point A to point B. “Achnasheen?”

“God bless you,” Basira deadpans, and Martin feels his mouth drop open when he realises she’s actually gone and made a joke. “Yeah. The delivery needs work.  Anyway, it’s in the Highlands, I’ve been there once with Daisy, it’s not too bad. I mean, the cottage itself is small, in the middle of nowhere, but it’s not too much trouble to get into the village for the shopping.”

“So, Scotland then.  You know, I’ve never actually been further than--” Martin stops when Basira looks pointedly at her wristwatch, and he folds the map before slipping it into his coat pocket.  “Anything else?”

Basira looks over Martin’s shoulder toward Jon, then leans forward and whispers quickly.  “Whatever Elias wants him for, I reckon Jon won’t be any good for it if he’s weak. Keep him away from people.  Keep him from Seeing and taking statements.”

Martin’s eyes widen.  “You’re telling me to starve him?  Basira, he’ll die, I’m not going to let that happen.”

“I’m not saying let him die, if anything he’s more dangerous when he’s starving.  I’m saying put him on a diet. Bare minimum statement calories, or whatever. Elias has been grooming him for whatever it is he has planned for a long time, and--”

“I honestly have no idea what he put in this,” Jon says, setting down a pint glass in front of Basira filled with reddish-orange liquid smelling heavily of grenadine.  “I know there’s vodka and something red, and I don’t know enough about Mai Tai’s to know if that’s right or n--”

Basira reaches across the table for Jon’s Guinness, brings it to her lips, and drains the entire thing in nine seconds flat while Martin and Jon look on in awe.

“Thanks for the drink,” she says, swallowing down a hiccough, “now get your bags, and get the hell out of here before someone or some thing comes for you.”  Basira pushes away from the table, stands and hesitates for a moment before reaching out and setting a hand against Martin’s shoulder.  Pats him awkwardly. “Be careful. Take care of him.” She reaches over, fingers sliding into Jon’s messy hair, ruffles it up while he rolls his eyes.  “She would have wanted me to do that. And to tell you to keep your shit together, of course. It’s possible the whole world might be relying on it.”

Jon ducks her hand and leans slightly into Martin’s side.  “Lovely. So no pressure at all, then.”

“Yeah, par for the course.”  

Basira casts one more loaded look at Martin, and Martin nods, takes Jon by the hand and leads him away.



---



The cottage is built of stone, a layer of white paint chipping away to reveal the uneven patchwork of rock underneath.  The roof could do with a re-thatching--there’s quite a bit of straw that appears to have been stripped away by the gales, the twisted ends of the yelms are exposed in long, gnarled fingers.  What might have once been a garden has long since gone to weeds, sending invasive tendrils of ivy climbing up the corner of the cottage. The whole thing is set back against the slope of a glen, surrounded by long grass turned golden and dull at the tips with the approach of winter.

Martin falls a little bit in love with it at first sight.  It’s the sort of place where you notice the glow of the fire from the window as you round the hill, knowing that once you make it inside, you’ll be warm and safe.  It’s the sort of place that you make into a home--a far cry from the monotony of identical flats stacked on top of one another, absent of personality. Or perhaps Martin has never really experienced anything like it before, and that’s why the low doorways and pock marks in the stones, the rough hewn aesthetic of it all, feels comforting in a way.  Even though he’s never once been here, it feels like a place he’s always wanted to be.

“Good Lord, Martin,” Jon says when they finally manage the lock and cross the threshold.  He looks up at Martin, then toward the ceiling. “If you were thinking of jumping for joy--don’t.”

There’s barely three feet worth of clearing between Martin’s head, and the exposed beams. He must look as if he’s wandered into a child’s doll house. It’s not an unfamiliar situation, Martin is often too tall, too broad for the spaces he occupies, but the accompanying claustrophobia hasn’t yet cropped up, and Martin is thankful to not feel that particular anxiety ratcheting away in the pit of his stomach.  Jon, on the other hand, looks quite like this place was made for someone of his stature, everything is within his reach. He might not even need the footstool he shunts from room to room back at the archives. 

“It’s perfect,” Martin declares, reaches over and touches the mantle over the fireplace.  His fingers come away dusty, but that’s all right. Jon is busy inspecting every corner for cobwebs, clearing away anything remotely nefarious with a straw broom he’d found propped in a corner.  Martin goes around opening the kitchen cabinets, drawers, finds the toilet, and an empty cupboard-- it’s cleaner than the rest of the cottage. Suspiciously so. It gives Martin an uneasy feeling imagining what Daisy might have once stored inside of it, and he’s quick to shut that door.  

There’s only one thing.

“We should probably unpack, get a few supplies from the village before the sun goes down,” Jon says, crossing the lounge area and coming up behind Martin’s shoulder.  “Is that one of the bedrooms? Tell me there’s not a dead vampire in there,” he says, sardonic. Martin can feel him going up on his tiptoes to look past Martin and into the room.  Panicked by Martin’s sudden reticence, Jon breathes behind him, “Oh my god, there’s a dead vampire, isn’t there?”

“No,” Martin says, slowly moving aside and allowing Jon to pass under his arm.  “But.. this is the only bedroom. And that,” he points to the double, stripped bare and nestled against the far wall, “is the only bed.”

Jon is already sitting on the edge of it.  “Oh?” he asks, and Martin watches as the realisation settles in his mind.  “Oh.  I see. Well that’s not--”

“I’ll kip on sofa,” Martin interrupts, feels his heart flutter inexplicably when Jon smooths his hands over the mattress, long fingers tracing over the lines of quilting. “I don’t mind.  Can’t be any worse than the pull-out back at the archives.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, that’s a two-seater in there.  I don’t even think I could sleep on it.”

Martin has to disagree.  He’s seen Jon fall asleep sitting up more times than he can count, has found Jon curled tightly in on himself on the sofa in the break room. Once, Tim caught him nodding off while standing propped against the wall during an annual employee brief, and they’d seen how many statement files they could stack on top of Jon’s head before he came around.  Eight, it turns out.

The point being, just because Jon can fall asleep anywhere, doesn’t mean he should.  He still looks well fed from his encounter with Peter now , but in a week, two weeks if they’re lucky, the bags under Jon’s eyes will darken.  His skin tone will take on a dull pallor, and the lethargy of Hunger will set in. He’ll need rest, then, won’t do to have his feet all crammed up against the sofa cushions when there’s a perfectly nice bed.  

“Really, it’s fine Jon.  Back home I usually fall asleep in the lounge anyway, so--”

“I was going to say it’s not a problem,” Jon speaks over him, a tint of shyness creeping into his voice, “if you don’t mind sharing.  The bed, that is,” he clarifies, holds his hands parallel to each other in the air, moves them back and forth in some sort of interpretative motion.  “There’s room for us both.”

Martin stares at him for a moment, unsure if he’s heard that right.  “Do you..” he swallows, feels giddy and nervous and bewildered all at once, “do you think that’s a good idea?”

Jon’s eyes narrow in confusion.  A little crinkle appears between his brows that Martin’s fingertips ache to soothe away.  “Why wouldn’t it be a good idea?”

“Okay?” Martin says nonsensically, he thought the answer to that would have been obvious.  It has to do with how Martin feels about Jon. Even before Martin had monsters using his feelings for Jon against him at every turn, it’s not like it was much of a secret.  He’s always loved Jon in obvious ways, because he couldn’t see the point in pretending not to. People should show they care. The world is already too full of hurting, too full of damaged people who don’t know how to love a thing without destroying it.  It’s a gift, to care. 

Whatever it was that passed between them in The Lonely, the intensity of Knowing which Martin felt when Jon asked him to look, and when Martin did, he-- well, he can’t understand how to describe it now.  How do you describe the recentering of gravity? Your feet held fast to the earth, when you had no idea that you’d been dangling above the ground, and never truly felt anything solid until the moment you landed.  A lifetime of one, and a moment of the other, and Jon tying him down between the two so Martin couldn’t slip away from him again. Even now, Martin isn’t sure if it was Jon’s desperation to be seen that saved him from that place, or the fierceness of Martin’s belief in Jon that tethered him there. 

It felt like love.  God, it felt like love.  But that doesn’t mean Martin just gets to run away with Jon, (even though that’s precisely what they did) and it doesn’t mean this gets to be something that it isn’t.

Jon breaks through Martin’s quiet indecision. “I’ve noticed one thing each of the Entities have in common, is that they don’t easily give up once they’ve marked a person.  They’ll pursue them even after the victim has escaped.”

“Yeah,” Martin admits grimly, and rubs the back of his neck.  He’s followed up on far too many statements to not have noticed the pattern of subjects mysteriously disappearing, or transforming in some way, or they’re simply found dead, after initially surviving an encounter. “Adelard Dekker compared it to an unfinished meal.”

 “Precisely my point, it has a taste for you now.”

“Well, suppose it’ll have to queue up behind the Watcher.”

“Yes, it will,” Jon says, something possessive and not-quite-Jon clinging to the words.  Something that would have made the tape recorder glitch with static, had one been present. Jon’s expression falters, he looks aside and when he speaks again, the edge in his voice is gone. “But that’s not the only reason, it’s um,” he huffs a self-deprecating laugh, sets his hands in his lap and begins twiddling his thumbs.

“It’s more self-serving really.  It’s just--christ, I’m not good at this-- I--I’m not sure if I want to be alone? And I don’t think you want to be either.  More than that, I don’t think you should.  It still has you there at the edges, I think.  It’s like some quiet part of you is still trying not to belong here.  I know you’re not doing it consciously,” he hastens to add, “please don’t think I’m … I know what it’s like, is all--to have something pulling you away that you can’t control. And to be alone,” he says, so quiet that Martin has to strain to hear.  “I know that one best of all.”

Martin leans against the frame of the door, pulls the cuffs of his jumper down into his hands to give them something to do that isn’t reaching out for Jon.

“I sleepwalk sometimes,” Martin announces after a moment, unable to help the half smile curving at the edge of his mouth.  “Have done since I was small. If that’s not a problem for you then I don’t see why we can’t, you know...”

Jon’s eyes go bright again.  “I involuntarily inhabit people’s trauma dreams. Relatively speaking, it could be much worse.  But I do steal the sheets, if that’s a deal breaker.”

“It’s not, I tend to run hot anyway,” Martin says, his heart nothing but fluttering wings in his chest.  He pushes Jon’s bag across the floor with his foot. “D’you see a bureau or anything in here? Or are we to pile our clothes over there in the corner?”

Jon looks around the room then shrugs, pushes his hair out of his face and secures it with an elastic.  One grey lock won’t be restrained and falls from the haphazard bun and back into his eyes. Martin can hear the faint whirring of the tape recorder from across the room, the moment Jon unzips his bag.

 

---

 

It’s dark and the shop in town is near closing by the time Martin makes it out for a supply run.  Jon didn’t ask to come, knows it’s best to keep the details of their whereabouts as vague as possible. He’d scribbled a list down on a scrap of paper before slipping it into Martin’s hand, his fingertips tickling against Martin’s palm as he fixed him with a worried gaze and said don’t get lost.  Martin had joked and told him it’d be pretty difficult to lose his way on the single road leading out from their cottage, and into the village, but Jon didn’t laugh.  His fingers idled. Martin committed to memory the way the soft, cool tips of them soothed away that creeping urge to vanish back into the grey.   

He holds that thought in his mind as the distance between him and Jon opens for the first time since their escape.  Martin presses the pad of his middle finger into the center of his palm, but it’s not the same.

It’s late, and Martin rushes about the unfamiliar aisles of the store, grabbing the essentials: Bags of Tetley’s, milk, sugar, bread and butter, a carton of eggs, ingredients for a few meals and nibbles for in between.  Jon has aleppo pepper underlined several times and Martin is relieved to find it.  He’ll need to wander further into the village on another day to try and find some of the food--actual, not existential--that Jon prefers. He’s never been one for packets of crisps or sleeves of jaffa cakes, but Martin has often witnessed Jon snacking on marinated olives, and the break room fridge is always stocked with things Jon picks up from the Syrian grocery on Uxbridge.  He studies a jar of cocktail olives wondering if they’ll do in a pinch, before deciding against it.  

Basira hadn’t packed any toiletries to speak of, so Martin grabs the first set of shampoo and conditioner he sees, soap, a bag of disposable razors that will definitely be unkind to their faces, and the shave cream to go with it.  He gets toothpaste, a small tub of petroleum jelly to prevent the late autumn air from drying out their hands, and decides that’s enough shopping for the night.

The longer he’s away from Jon, the more his anxiety trends upwards.  That part has nothing to do with residuals from The Lonely, Jon just is exceptionally good at getting kidnapped by unpleasant beings of all affiliations the minute his guard is down.  Jon’s defensive powers are terrifying, and they came at a price, but this is their life now, and Martin is grateful that Jon has safeguards.

He apologises to the man at the till for keeping him open late, and within twenty minutes he’s rounding the bend to their temporary home.  A warm, orange glow emanates from a window, and the anxiety tapers off when a Jon-sized shadow blots out the light from behind the glass.

They make short work of putting everything away, there’s really not much in the cupboard so organisation isn’t something they need to fret over.  The kitchen is fairly small, they keep bumping into one another--Jon reaching for the larder, as Martin moves to put the milk and cheese in the fridge. For one thrilling second, Jon’s hand touches the small of Martin’s back as he moves to get around him.  It’s all so achingly mundane, the process of it, and for a few lovely moments, Martin forgets to be scared about the future.

Once it’s finished, they opt for a quick, cheese sandwich for supper.  Neither of them have the energy to actually cook anything more substantial.  The past forty-eight hours of no sleep, unleashed terror, long drives, all the adrenalin ebbs and flows throughout, have finally caught up with them.  Jon seems to be too tired to eat, barely finishes half the sandwich, and Martin nearly nods off right there at the table mid-chew, before they’re binning what’s left.  

“I think,” Jon announces, cheek propped in his hand, “it’s time for bed.”

Martin mimics, sets an elbow on the table, lets his hand carry the weight of his head and yawns.  “You take the loo first, I’ll clean up here.” Jon nods and stretches in his seat, cracks his neck and makes Martin grimace at the loud popping sound it makes, before wandering off in the direction of the bedroom.  

By the time Martin is finished in the kitchen, Jon has already vacated the loo and Martin walks in on him pulling a grey, long-sleeved vest down over his head.  For a moment, the bare expanse of Jon’s torso makes Martin freeze in the doorway, and he inhales sharply. He can see the scattered indentations of scars left from Prentiss’ attack, dotting along his arms and shoulders--the discrepancy of his ribcage, the blistered scarring of his right hand as he slides it through the hole of a sleeve.  There’s the one Martin hasn’t seen yet, the one Melanie gave him with the Slaughter’s blade. It starts underneath the line of his collarbone, and carves several centimetres diagonally into the deltoid muscle. The skin there is silvered and mostly flat, instead of the raised pink scar a typical human would still be carrying so soon after the fact.  Jon’s body is resistant to damage anymore, but marks belonging to an Entity are permanent, whether visible or not. This one, like the others, will never fade.

Jon’s body, much like his mind, is a sort of atlas to pain, and Martin wishes he could take even some of it away. At the same time, Jon is unbearably beautiful.  It’s the combination of the desire to look at what you love, and the grief of seeing it touched by suffering, that has Martin clenching his teeth and looking away. He learned a long time ago that there is no such thing as safe in the world.  There are plenty of things about life which are, indeed, fair, but nothing is ever truly safe.  When you finally accept this, you accept the fear that comes along with it, and instead of struggling against it--you learn to live within the span of your own vulnerability.  You treat it gently, because you might be the only one ever to do so. Everything is always hungry, and coming to get you, and the world is mad -- and sometimes you have to stake out your own kindness.

It looks like Jon hasn’t been marked by kind hands in a very long time.

“All right, Martin?” Jon asks, and Martin realises he’s still stood awkwardly at the threshold into the bedroom.  Jon’s hands are paused at the button of his trousers, primed to shed those next, and Martin blinks, nods mutely, and makes his way over to the loo.  He definitely isn’t prepared for the sight of Jon’s thighs at the moment, no matter what state they’re in. 

Teeth brushed. Face washed.  Clothes are shucked off and replaced with clean pants, a random vest grabbed from their clothes pile in the corner of the room.  Martin stares at himself in the mirror and runs his fingers through the tousled mess of his hair, feeling some odd flutter of anticipation as he reaches for the door.  He can’t really remember the last time he’s slept in a bed with another person. It’s been months and months, preceded by months and months--after the Unknowing, he thinks, that was the last time.  

It was something borne out of the relentless crush of grief, and a desperation to assuage the guilt of surviving.  Before whatever this is with Jon, he’s never managed a relationship--romantic or otherwise--that lasted more than a couple of months. When an ex-boyfriend contacted him and suggested catching up--Martin said yes.  He thought it might help to be reminded that there was a life before his became a mass of fear and loss, but in retrospect, it only made it clear that even before this, Martin’s life wasn’t something conducive to forming relationships.

There had been his mother, and there had been work, and his world revolved around those responsibilities, leaving nothing really of his own. They’d laid next to each other in bed afterward, quiet and awkward and disconnected, and Martin had felt a hollow stab of realisation that while he might have been born with his father’s face, he’d somehow inherited his mother’s distance. Perhaps it wasn’t as cold or as cruel, and he wanted no part of it, but nonetheless it was there, this invisible repelling force wrapping around him and pushing outward.

The lights are already off, but Martin can parse Jon’s shape through the subtle shadows delineated by the pale moonlight. It limns the grey and white streaks of Jon’s hair where it’s spread out across the pillow. Jon has taken the right side of the bed, leaving an empty patch for Martin alongside him. Martin swallows and says nothing as he peels back the sheets and begins the process of arranging himself underneath.  He settles flat on his back, exhales quiet and slow, eyes cast up toward the ceiling. They aren’t touching, but Jon’s body heat still manages to cross over into the gap between them, and the sensation of it makes a quick surge of something large and overwhelming take up space in Martin’s chest

“Martin?”  Jon whispers.

“Yes.”

“Are you still awake?”

“No,” Martin says, and smiles when he hears Jon huff.  “M’ still awake, yeah.”

Do you mind if I…” Jon never finishes the sentence.  He turns on his side toward Martin, and his hand overcomes those scant centimetres of empty bed.  The tip of his forefinger settles in the valley between two knuckles, and it’s such a simple thing.  A touch not so much translated against Martin’s skin, but in the hollow of his bones, the pit of his stomach. Martin uncurls his fingers.  One by one they slip between the gaps of Jon’s own, and Martin breathes a sigh of relief when the crawling tendrils of Lonely recedes. This is what had always been most treacherous about the Forsaken One--people are usually acclimated to its presence, long before they’re sacrificed to it.  Loneliness isn’t the experience of finding yourself the only person in an empty room. Most of the time, people feel loneliness like a habit. Sometimes, there’s no reason for it all.

“That’s better,” Jon murmurs, half-unconscious, his voice muddled from exhaustion, “I can feel you again.”  He snuffles down against the pillow, the crown of his forehead resting ever so slightly against Martin’s shoulder.  Drawing up their joined hands, he tucks them underneath his chin, and Martin’s heart beats and beats and beats.

 

---

 

Martin--

Martin there’s something---

 

“MARTIN WAKE UP!”

Martin sits straight up in bed, hands scrabbling ineffectually at the sheets, still half dragged down into some murky dreamscape that is rapidly losing shape.  He gasps, is disoriented for a moment when he opens his eyes and doesn’t see the right combination of blurry shapes, before he remembers this isn’t his flat. Or his bed.  And those are Jon’s fingernails digging into his bicep. He’s practically wedged himself behind Martin’s back and the wooden frame of the bedhead.  

“Jesus Jon, what’s wrong,” Martin says, trying to tamp down on the swell of anxiety, and clambouring to swipe his specs from the bedside table.  One day, just one da y, Martin thinks, where nothing is beating down the door to kill them.  

“There’s something out there!”

“Where?”

“There!” Jon reaches behind Martin’s head, hands clamping down over his ears as he forcibly directs his gaze toward the window.  “Do you see it?”

Martin blinks.  Clears his throat.  

“You woke me up...for a cow?”  Sure enough, staring through the other side of the glass with a rather bored expression, is a highland cow.  It’s shaggy, and ginger, chewing idly on some bracken it probably picked up from the overgrown garden in front.

“It’s a cow,” Jon says witheringly, “what’s it doing here then, hm?”

“Jon, we’re surrounded by farms, she probably just found a way out the gate and wandered over.”  He pushes his legs out of bed, hears Jon sputtering a bit behind him as he walks over to the window and taps on it.  “Good morning lovely, enjoying your breakfast?”

“Martin,” Jon says, as if he’s the one being reasonable, “be careful.”

Martin looks over his shoulder at Jon, he’s still pressed up against the bedhead, eyes squinting suspiciously at the cow.  His shirt is askew, exposing the entire right line of his clavicle, and his hair is smashed flat to one side, while the other side hangs artfully tucked behind an ear.  It’s almost painful when Martin tears his eyes away from him to study their visitor: The Cow. Who, for all intents and purposes, genuinely appears to not give a damn about anything other than her mouthful of fronds.

“Really, it’s just cow.  I mean, suppose the horns might be a bit ah, pointy, but I don’t think she means us any harm.”

“I’ll See if--”

Martin blocks the window with his body.  “You’re not going to See anything.  This is just a cow,” he jabs his thumb back toward the window, “ you are just being paranoid.  You might explode her head or something if you try to See at her, I’m not sure if that’s meant for.. you know.  Animals. Besides, she’s cute.” 

“Cute,” Jon says in a flattened tone.

Martin snatches the tape-recorder off the top of the clothes pile, and presses it against the window.  “Look there. Not even a blip.”

“You don’t know that.  Once I read a statement about a Monster Pig--”

A Monster Pig?”

“--who tried to eat one man, definitely ate a clown.  It was evil and--”

“I’m telling you this is a good cow,” Martin says over him, calmly.

“--you’re saying that now, but wait until it starts eating the locals!  How can we be sure this isn’t some agent of the Flesh sent to oooh my god, I’m being paranoid, aren’t I.”  Jon exhales, shoulders slumping as he fixes Martin with a funny expression--equal parts embarrassment and resignation to it.

Martin presses his lips together and tries not to smile, but he feels it coming--can feel the great peal of laughter trying to make its way up his throat.  He presses a hand over his mouth, but the laugh still ends up emerging as an unattractive snort from his nose when it has no where else to go. Jon looks at him expectantly, eyes sparkling, lips pursed, but it’s Martin who breaks first.  He’s gasping between his fingers, and laughs and laughs.

“Monster Pig,” he wheezes, tears welling up in his eyes, “oh my god, Monster Pig.”

Jon is laughing now too, feigns offence, “I can’t believe you’re laughing at me.  It was a pig, and it was a monster. It did eat that clown, Martin!”

“I know,” Martin squeaks, then clears his throat and tries to be serious, “I know. I’m being terrible.  I swear, if this cow tries to kill us, I’ll take all the blame,” he dissolves into a fit of giggles again, falls backward onto the bed and lies face up at the foot of it, arms above his head, trying to catch his breath. “Our lives are mad.  Well and truly, lunatic.

Jon shuffles down to where Martin is lying, legs criss-crossed, his knees touching Martin’s shoulders. He pinches a bit of Martin’s hair between his thumb and forefinger, cautious about it, as if he isn’t quite sure he still has permission to touch in the light of day, and Martin doesn’t think, he leans into it.  Manoeuvres himself until his head lying in Jon’s lap, and Jon’s fingers sink into his hair, nails scratching along his scalp. Martin sighs louder than he means to, it just comes out--all that relief. It feels so nice, even if Martin registers a little twinge of guilt of which he can’t pinpoint an origin. It’s always there lurking, telling him comfort is selfish. Telling him he isn’t allowed to take affection, even if it’s something that’s taken from him first.  His mother never made a point of reciprocity, and somewhere in the convoluted mess of his childhood, he’d told himself he must not have deserved it.

Jon strokes the hair cropped hair over Martin’s ear, and Martin wants, desperately, to get used to this. 

“I missed that, you know,” Jon says, quiet and shy, “hearing you laugh.”

Martin tries to think of something to reply with, something small but significant, that will accurately describe the mass of love lodged in his chest which stays and never diminishes, not ever.   



----

 

Martin can pinpoint the exact moment where his feelings for Jon began to slip into something deeper.  

It was late June, Father’s Day actually, the last month before Prentiss attacked-- in the staff lounge, with the kitchenette backed into the corner, and the old microwave perpetually speckled with bits of re-heated lasagne.  There, between the folding table, and the sink filled with food storage containers that were left behind as someone else’s problem.  They’d found a way around one another, on those quiet nights when Jon would work too late and opt to stay at the institute instead of riskwalking out into the dark. It was there, if anywhere, that the first stirrings of love began for Martin.

Sure, Jon still had his long glares, and his evident disdain for Martin specifically as a person, and Martin was overcompensating to the point of finding himself profoundly annoying.  But every time it seemed Jon was doubling down on his efforts to resent him, it made Martin that much more bull-headed about caring .  Martin became fiercely attached to that concern, because it was his choice. There was a freedom there, one he didn’t have with his mother.   He wanted to do it, and so he did.  Jon just seemed like a person who very much needed someone to look after him.

It wasn’t anything monumental, nothing overt or complicated. It was just a shared meal.  That’s all. It was Jon wordlessly tossing Martin’s ready-meal into the bin, announcing You can’t eat that, it smells disgusting, and he began unpacking a large takeaway bag filled with far more food than one person could eat on their own--particularly Jon who, at the time, seemed to subsist on oxygen and scorn.  Inside the bag were stuffed grape leaves, warm pita, a pepper dip Jon muttered the name of-- muhammara possibly-- mixed veg touched with grill marks and seasoned yoghurt, a large salad smelling strongly of parsley, lemon, and mint.  The chicken shawarma was familiar, the kufta kebab less so, but Martin was fairly certain it might have been lamb.  

When Jon was finished setting out his spread, he sat heavily in the seat across from Martin and arranged a napkin in his lap.  Martin wasn’t sure if this was meant for him at first, Jon never offered out loud. He sat staring at it for the longest time, hands awkwardly splayed atop the table until Jon caught his eye and looked pointedly down at the food and back up at Martin.  His gaze read annoyance, but the way his fingers gently pushed the pita toward Martin telegraphed nervousness, and all at once Martin realised what was going on: Jon was being nice.  He’d done something sweet, and intentional, and it was for Martin.  

They barely spoke, that’s the funny thing.  Martin asked something polite about Jon’s family, and Jonchanged the subject.  Jon asked something innocuous about Martin’s childhood, and Martin changed the subject.  That avoidance spoke volumes on its own. Neither of them had any nostalgia to share on a family holiday, and a silent understanding of what that meant passed between them.

Afterward, Jon began clearing away the leftovers as Martin started for the dishes, and Martin had felt oddly overwhelmed with gratefulness for Jon.  He’d paused next to him and said, “Thank you.  That might have been the first meal I’ve shared with anyone in weeks, actually.” Jon went quiet and still for a moment. “Me too,” he said,   and Martin smiled.  He remembers the smiling, because Jon’s eyes fell on his mouth and Martin became abruptly aware of how close they were standing to each other, and how easy it would be to brush Jon’s fringe out of his eyes. 

But instead, Jon blinked, turned around, and in his haste, he tripped over his own feet while walking to the bin-- and that was the moment Martin fell a little bit in love. Simple.  It’d never felt like that before; love had always been this demanding, greedy thing, that held Martin’s heart under its heel and pressed down.

There has always been something vulnerable and familiar there, right in the middle of Jon--like a fracture in a porcelain mask, showing through to the man underneath.  Martin could never seem to ignore this about him. 

Even right now, teaching Jon how to play poker, watching him grow progressively more annoyed by the rules and making squinty eyes at Martin over his hand of cards--Martin feels acutely protective of that naked humanity which Jon can’t detach from, no matter how hard external forces try and rip it from his bones.

Jon wraps his scarf over his mouth, drapes the floppy end of it over his head to hide the set of his brow.  “It’s part of my poker face,” he says, muffled and dramatic, “I’m taking you for all you’ve got, Blackwood.” He pushes his pile of matchsticks to the center of the table.  

It’s easy to love Jon. Martin can’t understand why everyone doesn’t do it.




He’s glad to see that sharing space with Jon is still uncomplicated.  They’re eerily compatible with one another, and Martin doesn’t want to think about the possible implications of that in the bigger picture--not with a far too keen understanding of the darker nature of coincidence.  He just knows it feels right, and that’s what matters. They fall into the domestic routines of caring for a home, and each other. Martin always makes the tea because Jon says his own doesn’t taste right anymore, and that makes Martin so stupidly happy for some reason.  Jon only becomes slightly passive-aggressive when Martin fails to wash his toothpaste foam down the drain, and he takes over food prep almost immediately which suits Martin just fine.  Martin can make do with the basics, but he’s never had much skill as a cook. It was never really the priority. At a certain point, fairly early on, his mum didn’t have the muscle control for it anymore, and he’d been too young to really mess about with the hob without setting the house on fire.  As he grew older, there hadn’t been enough time between school and work, and he certainly didn’t find that time after dropping out.  

Jon, on the other hand, learned how to cook from his grandmother. He doesn’t talk about her much, it’s clear there was strain between them, but occasionally Jon will mention Sundays in the kitchen preparing dinner together.  Those were the only times she would open up about Jon’s father, recounting his childhood in Damascus and how he too, would stay inside to help her rather than go out to play with his siblings. But soon the reminiscing gave way to bitterness, and the stories would stop, leaving Jon with all his curiosity, and the merest fragments of a family history.

Martin folds their clothes and stacks them into neat piles on the sofa while watching Jon cut an onion in the kitchen. He scoops up his handiwork, scatters it around in a skillet with a bit of sumac, and gives it a stir before reaching for the tomatoes.  

“You’re a bit of a catch, you know that?”  Martin finds himself saying, still mesmerised with the way Jon’s fingers inch backward over the skin of the tomato with each pass of the knife.

Jon laughs out loud.  “That so?” he asks, looking over his shoulder, eyebrow raised.  “Not sure you’ll find any of my exes corroborating that theory.”

“Well, my ex had trouble with your basic toast.”  Also, Martin is wildly biased where Jon is concerned.

“Unfortunately, I think it takes a bit more than good toast.  Something about emotional availability.”  Jon hums thoughtfully.  

“Ah,” Martin winces, “he did pretty well there.  Too well, actually. He was sort of emotionally available to everyone, if that makes sense.”

“Hold on,” Jon says, eyes narrowing.  Martin waits, and watches when Jon parses the implication.  His jaw drops. “He didn’t.”

“Did.”

“On you?” 

Martin shrugs.  “Wasn’t going to work out anyway.”

“Doesn’t matter.  Say the word and I’ll--” Jon holds up two fingers pointing toward his eyes, wiggles them around a bit, “you know.”

“Look at him to death?”

“Give me some credit, I’m not that far gone,” Jon says, offended, then deadpanning in that very dry Jon way, “unless you asked, of course.”

“Very tempting, but I think I’ll pass.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” Jon says, and turns back down to his tomatoes.  “Do you mind if I ask why it wouldn’t have worked out?”

Martin sighs and matches a pair of socks.  “I was just a drop out looking after his sick mum, he was an engineer and came from a good family.  He was going somewhere. I was stuck. We lived in two different worlds. Opposites attract and all but.. dunno.  At the end of the day there was no hope of really understanding each other. There has to be some common ground.”

Jon is quiet for a moment. “You shouldn’t talk about yourself like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you aren’t completely brilliant.” Jon answers with such open earnesty that Martin can only stare at him from across the room.  Heart in his throat. He sounds like a child, fiercely proud of some trivial, ordinary thing that he has discovered, and is desperate to have the rest of the world be proud of it as well.  

Martin’s face burns, and he looks away.

 “What do you think is our common ground, then?”  Jon asks, gesturing between them with his knife. “Aside from everything wanting to kill us and destroy the world as we know it?”

“Trauma,” Martin blurts, the word wrenching itself free from his tongue.  Jon’s expression falters.

“I was afraid you’d say that,” he murmurs.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Martin tries to explain, “I mean of course it’s bad, everything that’s happened in the past few years, everything that came before it--that’s--that’s bad.  I’m not talking about trauma specifically--just what’s left behind after. What I’m trying to say…” he struggles to put it together in his head, “It’s complicated, I’m not sure--”

“Tell me,” Jon says gently, and Martin’s mind sharpens all at once.

“I think grief marks us, too.  Deeper than any of the Fears. Maybe even deeper than love, grief marks us, changes us in a fundamental way. Sometimes there’s so much of it that you think you’ll never feel anything else ever again, because how could you? Not with the grief taking up all the space, demanding to be heard.  But sometimes it’s a gift, too? It forces you to be more human than you’ve ever been--makes you stubborn to hold on to every little kindness, every last shred of love left in the world because you know how it feels to have it yanked away.” Martin sets the shirt he was folding aside and awkwardly pats the top of the pile.  “It’s not so bad, finding someone who you can share your grief with, I don’t think.” He smiles lightly and shrugs. “Doesn’t mean you can’t still laugh together, of course. It’s the love that’s the important bit, long as you can get that right.”

“How do you know if you’re getting it right?”

“I think of how my mum loved me, and then I do the opposite,” Martin answers, feeling immediately like an arsehole. “God, sorry, that sounded awful.  I shouldn’t talk ill of her like that. It’s just--she always made me feel like it was so hard for her to love me.  I could never do enough to earn it, either .   She wasn’t well, my mum, but I’m not sure I deserved that. I don’t think that’s the right way.  Does that make sense?”

“Actually I uh,” Jon gives a short, tight laugh, “I think I understand, exactly.”

Martin clears his throat as the urge to explain subsides, and tries for levity.  “Does that count as, y’know, as snack for you or anything? Because a lot of that didn’t occur to me until after taking a statement from Simon ‘Existence is Meaningless’ Fairchild, so we might can work in that angle.”

“I um,” Jon appears to be collecting his thoughts, “Martin has anyone ever told you-- wait.  You took a statement from Simon Fairchild?”

Martin snorts. “ Statement might be a bit of a stretch.  Was more like an interrogation, but with flirting and death threats.”

Jon hates that.  Martin knows because his eyes narrow the same way they do when someone brings up the Tories. He turns back to his cutting board, mumbles something harsh under his breath that Martin can quite parse, and when he musters up his voice to ask what it was, Jon sucks in a sharp breath.  The knife drops with a metallic clatter, and Martin is rushing through to the kitchen the moment he notices the bright stain of blood dripping from Jon’s hand down onto the bench.

“Oh my god, show me,” Martin breathes, reaching for Jon.

“No, it’s all right, j--just give it a minute.” Jon balls his fist and tries to hide it behind his back, pulls his shoulder away when Martin makes another grab for the hand.  “Martin, really. Martin.”

“Yes, Jonathan ,” Martin retorts as he pries Jon’s arm from behind his back, “I only want to--” he holds Jon by the wrist, closed fist facing up and sighs. “Come on Gordon Ramsey, open up.”

Jon uncurls his fingers in time for Martin to watch a laceration along the purlicue of his palm seal itself shut, the skin stitching itself together layer by layer.  Unthinking, Martin smears away some of the blood with the pad of his thumb. All that’s left is a faint pink line where the cut once had been, and even it is quickly fading. 

“Huh,” Martin says, “Wow.  All right, that’s--”

“Creepy, I know.”  

“Actually I was going to say kind of cool , but.”

“Cool.” Jon repeats, voice flat.

“Li’l bit, yeah,” Martin murmurs absently, and snags a flannel from the bench, runs the tap over it, and starts wiping away the mess of Jon’s blood from his fingers, his nail beds, down his wrist.  By the time he’s cleaned up, Martin can’t even see that angry line of freshly healed skin anymore. “There we are, I suppose,” Martin draws up Jon’s hand to his mouth, and presses an impulsive kiss to the center of his palm.  “Good as new.”  

Jon’s face is blank when Martin looks back down at him.

“I’m sorry,” Martin pulls back sharply. Stands ramrod straight and balls his fists by his sides. Jon doesn’t move at all.  “That was… I’m sorry.”

“You have really terrible taste in men,” Jon says, the words rushing out as he strains upward on his toes, fingers pulling Martin down by the collar.  He presses their lips together, and the world spins wildly inward on itself.

It’s over before Martin genuinely has a chance to draw it out-- just the warm impression of Jon’s lips, softer than they have a right to be. Martin’s heart promptly tries to beat its way out from between his ribs, and then Jon is whipping back around to tend the hob.  The onions fizzle weakly and smell faintly bitter with burn as he scrapes the bottom of the pot.

Martin blinks and tries to express something  He wants to ask if he can kiss Jon again. Wants to grab him by the shoulders, put Jon’s face in his hands, and ask what do you want from me?  But each syllable wisps away as soon as it forms on his tongue. 



----

 

 

It’s a fortnight before the prognostic signs of Jon’s hunger becomes apparent.  His mood grows restless, irritable and fidgety, no distraction can keep him occupied for long.  Martin can feel the stirrings of the Eye’s influence in himself--a need to uncover, to search, to know and understand.  It’s a strange feeling, like the day before the symptoms of a virus make themselves known, a sickening wrongness at the core of him.  Martin’s ties to the Eye aren’t quite as strong as Jon’s, he can go longer without feeding the Beholding before it really slows him down, but it’s not indefinite.  Tim tried resisting the longest, had run off to Malaysia for weeks before life began draining out of him and he was forced to return to the archives. Even Melanie still needed to do the occasional filing, up until the point of blinding herself.  

Jon has the worst of it though, by a wide margin.  

Martin comes home from a morning walk to find Jon attempting to chop firewood.  It’s a rather silly sight at a distance. Jon could rip Martin to shreds with a Look, it’s not like he’s some helpless, frail thing-- but to see him, Jon is..well.. There was probably a good reason no one encouraged him to take up any profitable trades requiring hard labour.  Jon isn’t the type to head out at dawn, breath clearly visible in the damp air, to commit himself to the task of halfing cedar logs for the fire. He looks a bit like a posh street urchin--below average in height, verging on gaunt, perpetually bedraggled, but with a public school accent and the sort of bone structure that seems a bit unfair to the average population.  Not exactly lumberjack material.

The closer Martin gets, however, it becomes clear that Jon has given up any pretense of the chore, and is swinging wildly at the splitting stump.

“Jon!” Martin shouts and starts jogging over, “Jon, wait--” just as he draws near, he has to jump back.  A particularly rough twack sends shavings and wood chips airborne and Martin lifts his forearm to shield his face.  “Christ, Jon, you’re not even wearing your glasses , you’re going to catch a splinter in your eye!”

Jon whirls on him.  “Good,” he says fiercely, and turns back for another swing, but Martin catches the ax mid-handle and wrenches it out of Jon’s hands, throws it aside. 

“Talk to me, Jon,” he demands, setting his gloved hands over Jon’s ears and rubbing his thumbs across sharp cheekbones.

All the fight leaves Jon at once, his shoulders sag and he takes a ragged breath.  “It’s nothing… nothing, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to--” he runs his hands through his hair, looks at his palms and balls them up tight before Martin can get a look at any damage he’s done to the soft skin there.  “I’m going to lie down,” he says, stuffing his hands into his pockets and walking quickly back toward the door.

Jon sleeps through the rest of the morning, it’s well past noon when Martin goes in to check on him.  He sits on the edge of the bed and looks at Jon. There are shadows under his eyes even though Jon slept perfectly fine last night.  Martin would have known if he hadn’t. Unlike Jon, he’s a light sleeper most of the time, and Jon squirms with the nightmares, hands scrabbling at the sheets.  Twisting them like a neck. But last night, when it started, Martin couldn’t keep to his side anymore--he’d grabbed Job by the waist, pulled him into the hollow of his body and held him there, his hands over Jon’s hands, shushing him until the twitching stopped.  After a moment, Jon turned and tucked his head under Martin’s chin, his legs twining through Martin’s to lock their ankles together, and he knows Jon slept, because he felt it.

Jon stirs under the sheets, blinks blearily up at Martin.

“Sorry,” Martin whispers, “go back asleep, was only checking.”

Jon stares at him like it’s taking far too long to process his surroundings and whatever it is Martin has just said.  “I’m fine,” he mutters.

“Sure,” Martin says, and smiles when Jon manages an eye roll at the obvious disbelief in his tone. 

The disorientation settles it.  Jon can go a few more days at this stage before Martin would need to watch him like a hawk to keep him from going out hunting on autopilot, but Martin isn’t going to wait for that.  As soon as Jon settles down, he’s going right back into the village to the bank that looked like someone’s house, and remove a statement from the safety deposit box he rented for fifteen pounds a month.  It had seemed the best storage option at the time. Keep Jon from sniffing out a statement before he’s due, at least until Basira can send enough that Martin won’t have to be this paranoid about rationing.

Jon catches Martin by the wrist when he gets up.

“I won’t be gone long, I swear.”  Jon’s eyes hover along the peripherals of Martin’s body, as if he’s seeing something there that doesn’t belong.  “I swear,” Martin promises, and Jon nods, fingers brushing along the top of Martin’s hand as he pulls away.


When Martin returns, Jon’s hair is freshly washed and he’s sitting down with a pencil behind his ear, brow furrowed at the laptop’s screen.  He isn’t writing anything, and the reflection of the screen against Jon’s lenses shows nothing but the emptiness of a blank document. Jon’s index finger taps rapidly against a key, but never fully depresses it.  Martin observes him like this for a moment, the little tics of Jon’s anxiety, before setting the statement aside and switching on the kettle. When he turns back around, there’s already a tape recorder sitting next to it.

He smooths his fingers over the casing, it feels warm, the same as ever-- like it’s been used recently or someone has held it clutched in their hand for some time and the metal has taken on that person’s body heat.  It feels alive. He’d thought the recorders so odd when he’d first started at the institute. The first thing he’d noticed was their utter lack of any branding, no Sony or Panasonic-- not even the small triangular marks denoting the rewind and fast-forward feature. Only ever the unmistakable, bright red of the recording button--almost always depressed--the way it is now. The cassette sprockets slowly turn behind the small, plastic window of the tape deck.

“Are you Hungry?”  Martin asks Jon, but also the tape recorder.

“No,” Jon answers, flashing a thin smile at Martin before looking back down, “had some shreddies while you were out.”  He nudges an empty bowl lying on top of the coffee table with his socked foot. The handle of the spoon scrapes against the ceramic, and Martin frowns.

“That’s not the sort of hungry I meant.”

Jon goes still for a moment, then his shoulders droop.  He pulls off his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose.  “I know,” he says quietly. “Suppose I thought Peter,” he always says the name as if he’s tasted something bitter, “might sustain me for a longer period of time.”

Martin had hoped, too, but he doesn’t say so.  He sort of had a theory based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever, that consuming a direct statement from another Avatar might be--well--more filling?  Straight from the source and all, free range Fear. Or maybe it was, but Jon depleted the reserve almost immediately with whatever expenditure of power it took to obliterate him.

“I’ve got you something.  It’s only one, and I’m not sure how much follow-up I’ll be able to do with, you know, unreliable-to-nonexistent internet access.  But it should be enough to take the edge off.”

Jon nods and slowly closes his laptop, sets it aside.  Folding his hands in his lap, he gives Martin a queer look.

Martin pours milk into Jon’s tea, and stares back. “Jon,” he says fondly, leaning down onto the bench with his elbows, and resting a cheek on his fist, “I’m not you.  I don’t know what you’re thinking, you’ll have to tell me.”

Jon places the temple tip of his specs between his lips before using them to gesture toward Martin.  “You really care about me, don’ t you,” he says with such a sense of wonderment that Martin lets out a small giggle.  But Jon only tilts his head and keeps studying Martin from the sofa.

“Oh, you’re seriou--y--you know that I--” Martin feels himself starting to blush.  “I mean, it’s no surprise there, is it?” he says softly.

“It’s always surprising when someone cares about you.”

Martin has never really thought about it that way.  “I suppose so.”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked you,” he says, staring down at his hands, one finger tracing a roping path of scar tissue over his wrist.

“For what?”

“For not looking at me like I’m a monster.”

“You’re not,” Martin says, convicted and immediate. He’s known monsters before-- the real kind. The ones that have no excuse for their wretchedness and cruelty, who choose to hurt and manipulate and destroy, and it isn’t the siren call of arcane power helping to corrupt their hearts.  No, it’s just their own rotten humanity. That’s not Jon. Not Jon who has sacrificed himself piece by piece to protect them.  Not Jon, who drags himself back home to the archives each time, smelling tired.

“Listen to me,” Martin demands, voice firm, “you are not a monster.”

“I’ve hurt people.”

“So have I, so have we all.  We’re human, we’ve all got a bit of monster in us that we have to bother controlling from time to time.  I don’t care what Elias says, or what the others think-- you know you had no choice in what happened to you, right?  None of us did.”

“I did choose.  At some point, I did.”

Martin makes a shrill sound of disbelief.  “As an alternative to dying! What sort of choice is that? Are you saying--”

“Perhaps should have done.  Whatever Elias wants to use me for--”

“He would have used someone else for instead . ”  At this, Jon’s dark eyes cut a sharp path to Martin’s, then slip away.  “You’ve thought about that,” Martin surmises.

A muscle in Jon’s jaw flickers.  “Behind me, you’ve the strongest connection to the Eye. I’ve heard your recordings, the statements they--” he looks around, very unhappy, “it wouldn’t take much to make you the next Archivist.  When I came to you and suggested--well, that- -even if I didn’t want to leave without you, I also couldn’t leave without you.  I couldn’t leave you to Elias. Couldn’t stomach the thought of him...”

“Doing to me, what he’s done to you,”  Martin finishes, when Jon lapses back into silence.  “Don’t you see? That’s exactly what I mean. You’re not evil , Jon.”

“Maybe not evil. But I don’t think I can be good either.”

Martin folds his arms in front of himself.  

“I’ve upset you,” Jon says.

“Keen,” Martin replies, flatly.

“Why?”

“Well, the person I really care about keeps calling himself a monster, can you see where I’d take offence?  Stop trying to convince me that I’m better off without you, that’s never going to happen, Jon.  You’ve just been cooped up for a fortnight, trying not to See or Know, worried about Daisy and Basira and whatever might be going on back home.  You feel helpless, and you’re right--we don’t have much control over those things. But what we can do, is get you fed up, and let you can feel a little better. So unless you’d rather have another barney about your fragile humanity and how I won’t give your self-loathing any quarter, come get your tea, and your statement, and when you’re finished, pop outside for some bloody fresh air, ” Martin jabbers himself into a nasty silence as Jon’s brow goes higher and higher.

“Are we rowing right now?” he asks in disbelief.  “Like, properly?”

Martin forms a series of half-realised words, then settles on, “Sort of?”

A fond expression crosses over Jon’s face, he shakes his head. “How do you do that?

“What?”

“See through me.  Every time.” He doesn’t wait for an answer, but he smiles-- a twist of his lips, that doesn’t quite touch his eyes.  “I like the way you see me,” he murmurs, “that’s the person I want to be.”  

With that, Jon pushes up from the sofa, and walks over to Martin.  The statement goes under his arm, the tape recorder is swiped from the bench.  Their fingers slip over one another when Jon reaches for the mug, his thumb caresses the top of Martin’s knuckles.  A peal of static erupts from the tape recorder at the same moment Martin’s heart rate spikes, and Jon looks down at it and rolls his eyes before turning back for the sofa.

 “Yeah, I prefer him as well. But you need me, so let’s get it over with” he mutters irritably at the thing before setting everything in place at the coffee table.

Martin clears his throat and wills his heart back into order.  “I’ll be right outside,” he assures, putting the milk back into the fridge before heading for the door. Jon gives a curt nod, his eyes already beginning to take on that strange sheen as he situates himself tailor style at the sofa with the statement in his lap.

 

 Martin sits underneath the window among the shrivelled and dying weeds, listening to Jon’s voice bleeding through the walls.  He can’t make out what the statement is about, doesn’t know which classification it belongs to, and Martin knows all too well the way the fear within the statement is pushing itself into Jon’s mind and forcing him to relive it--but he can’t help but feel himself being lulled into a calm by Jon’s smooth drone.  

He doesn’t even realise he’s nodding off until he hears Jon’s feet crunching along the dead vegetation surrounding the perimeter of the cottage.  He leans against the wall alongside Martin, and Martin glances up at him. “You look better.”  

“I feel better.”  Jon inhales deeply, bending his knees as he exhales, his spine bumping over the rough melange of stone and plaster as he sits beside Martin.  “Manifestation of the Buried. You know how it is sometimes though, a bit of Lonely and Dark tend to find their way in there as well.”

Martin pulls a face and shudders.  “Buried. My least favourite of the lot.  Where?”

“Lift in Norilsk--isolated city in northern Russia. Partially collapsed block of flats in the middle of the polar night.  I don’t mind the Buried, actually,” Jon says, teasing.

“Right, that’s why I waited a few days before piling tape recorders on top of that Coffin.  Figured you were in there for a kip.”

Jon smiles.  “Knew it was you.”

“Course it was me,” Martin mumbles, nudging Jon with his shoulder.  They sit together quietly, the temperature dropping as daylight wanes.  A reed beetle scuttles over a fallen stalk of hogweed, and across the toe of Martin’s shoe.  The wind begins to sweep across the glen, gently whipping over the long grass, and if Martin were to take off his glasses and blur the image, it wouldn’t look any different than the calm undulation of seawater. Jon begins to shiver alongside him, pulls his scarf over his mouth.

 “Do you want to go in?”

“In a minute,” Jon murmurs, “this is nice,” and hums gratefully when Martin wraps an arm around his shoulders so they can share warmth. The sun sinks into the horizon, painting the sky in deep shades of indigo and gold and casting a bruised glow against the earth below. Martin looks down at the top of Jon’s head resting softly against his chest. Silver and white streaks of hair weave through the shock of black, and Martin wonders how long it will be before there’s no more of the black left at all.  Wonders if they’ll grow old enough, remain human enough, to see time take them with it. Martin would like to live to see that. He’d like to have a world, in which to grow old with Jon.

 

For now though, for one brilliant moment--with Jon’s weight against his chest, and the sun setting over the heart of the glen--the world is perfect.

 

---

 

It’s not easy detaching from an Entity once it’s touched you, they’re not keen to let go.  Most often, they just seem to like the taste of a victim and are content to bleed that fear dry, but sometimes there is a terrible compatibility that occurs between predator and prey.  The former mostly end up dead. The latter, as avatars--a type of death, in a way, when submitted to in full.  

Martin isn’t sure where he places on that scale.  Everything seems to either want to kill him, or wear him, in equal measure.  Maybe there’s really not much of a distinction to be made between the two, after all--it’s all consumption there at the end.  

He can still feel the threads of the Lonely, more fragile and faded than when they first arrived here.  The connection is unhealthy, starving from being thrown out of alignment--extant enough that Martin can sense a link to something bottomless and arcane, but not solid enough to be described as a bond.  If he lets it be, doesn’t feed it, it’ll wither.

During the day, Martin can keep it at bay--though it still seems at times as if he can’t quite access himself properly.  He knows the shape of his emotions, but Martin is here, and they’re there, and he’s trying to connect to himself through a haze.  Martin wants the brightness back, but he’s beginning to fear that the damage might be permanent.  He got too close. Perhaps the Lonely broke apart something essential, anaesthetised some vital bit.  Or It’s angry at Martin for drawing so close, but choosing Jon, and by extension, the Watcher. The old If I can’t have you, no one can, mentality, and Martin is just another unfinished meal at this point

Jon, on the other hand, perceives It like blood in the water.  Martin can be flicking through a book, or outside trying to mend a bit of thatching, washing dishes, up to the elbows in suds--and suddenly he has Jon pressing up behind him.  There’s a tape recorder near, and the squeaky crescendo of static belongs to Martin, not Jon. His head rests between Martin’s shoulder blades, Jon’s fingers hook into Martin’s jumper, and that sinister coldness dissipates at once.

Stay, Jon will whisper desperately, and hold him on the precipice between Here and There.  Martin hadn’t even noticed he was sliding into the Nowhere. He doesn’t want to disappear, swears it, says as much to Jon. He doesn’t ever want to separated from Jon like that again.  He doesn’t ever want Jon to have to come looking for him.  

But maybe some place inside of Martin, some deep, mangled pit that knows too much of abandonment, and not enough of staying -- does want it.  Not in the same way a person wants for love, or intimacy, but in the way people hold on to addictions.  No matter how poisonous, or how destructive, there is always a sense of safety in praxis.  

The Lonely stops reaching for Martin when Jon is awake, knows better now than to take him where Jon can See.  Instead, it finds Martin in his dreams, while Jon is busy inside of his own--or someone else’s. It comes to him in trammeled figments, scenes that flicker like a reel of tape threaded through a projector.  It’s impossible to tell where one begins, and another ends, fractured and spliced the way the are. Memories get mixed in with nightmare and it all combines into--

His mother’s voice, echoing down the hallway, calling his name.  The light spilling out from the bedroom door. We’re leaving, she says, and answers no questions.

Air hissing through a crack in the window.  It’s night. They’re driving away. His mother won’t tell him where they’re going.  The unfeeling look in her eyes when Martin begins to cry. She turns back toward the road.

Cleaning up a dead spider from the kitchen floor, its legs bent and tucked into a death curl.  The disjointed sound of his mother falling in the lounge. He helps her up. She pushes him away. The spider is gone when he returns.

“Take another month to consider this, Martin.  Finish your A-levels at least. You’re far too smart to be throwing away your chance at--”  The chime of the intercom, discordant to the sound of students filing from one class to the next, leaving him behind.  Your future, is how that sentence was going to end.  Nothing is his own--not the childhood he was dispossessed of, or the future he must discard.  Martin’s feet are on the tarmac, bus fare in his pocket, and he’s walking away.

The moment Basira calls from hospital.  Doctors say there’s no chance of Jon ever regaining consciousness. I’m sorry.   The phone slipping out of Martin’s hand.  The world slipping out of focus.

After-- the old safe room. Martin hunched over in a chair, tears soaking into his collar.  Turning Jon’s zippo lighter over in his palm and tracing a thread of web. Holding it against his chest.  The great hollowness of the archive surrounding him.  

The hospital, the smell of sick room air.  He tries to hold his mother’s hand. “ It hurts to look at you,” she tells him.  He doesn’t know what to say, so he says,  “ I know.”   She pulls her hand out from between his.  She drifts away. She’s gone, and it’s a relief.  It’s excruciating.  

A bed.  Two bodies.  Martin’s silence. Him, facing the other away.  Sweat cooling on Martin’s forehead. A silence too brittle to keep out the grief.

Gulls crying out overhead.  Martin is standing at the shore.  Jon is standing far away--there, under the lighthouse.  He’s calling out, but Martin feels numbed to the spot and unable to answer.

The distance between them opening to an ocean. Martin is stuck at the shore’s edge.  An embankment of fog rolls in from the sea, covers his shoes. Up to his shins.  

The sound of his name, muddled and buckling under the weight of the grey which creeps inward and leaves nothing untouched. 

It’s at his chest now, flowing into his  nostrils--nebulous and impenetrable. He ought to be choking on it as it enters his lungs, but instead he is filled with a terrible, piercing vacancy.

 

Martin. Martin!

 

Can’t feel his hands. Can’t feel his legs, or his lungs, can’t feel his voice, can’t be warm.  Can’t be anywhere. He should be panicking. This isn’t right.  

Not just that. This isn’t real.   It’s not.  He was in bed with Jon moments ago.

That’s right… they were in bed, and Jon was sprawled half on top of Martin’s body--all jabby elbows and kicking legs, until he settled.  Went soft and quiet. Martin could feel his faint snores against his collar. Where’s Jon? Where’s Jon? 

“MARTIN!”

Something burns when it reaches through the grey, planting itself on the tops of Martin’s forearms, and yanks.  

“Martin!  God, are you--are you okay? Fucking hell,” Jon croaks, breathing hard.

Martin blinks, there’s water in his eyes, and for a terrible moment he can’t tell if he’s crying or still drowning.  

Turns out neither. As the film of Lonely sloughs away, he hears the clear, lilting sound of falling rain.  The distant roll of thunder makes it difficult to tell if the storm is coming or already passed. The sky is still the cellar-dark of night, clouds blotting out the light of the moon and stars.

Squinting, he peers down at Jon, and only manages to ask, “How did I get outside?”

Jon still seems to be fighting off his panic, his hands dropping to his knees as he hunches over and tries to steady himself.  “You broke into my dreams--or I broke into yours, I’m not sure. We were back in Kent and you were-- you weren’t okay. Woke up and you were gone.  Remember what you said about sleep-walking and wanted to make sure you weren’t--dunno,” he straightens again and waves a hand back toward the cottage, “accidentally burning down the kitchen?  But the front door was open, and I knew. I knew It was trying to take you back. I started shouting, trying to find you. I was in this very spot and you weren’t here. I didn’t know how long it had been, if a doorway was still open that I could breach--but then I turned back around, and there you were.”

“I heard you calling me,” Martin murmurs, distracted with how a flicker of lightning makes the rain drops clinging to Jon’s eyelashes gleam.  He reaches out to him, tucks a sodden length of hair behind his ear. Jon presses his cheek into Martin’s palm.  

There’s something wrong.

“Jon..”

“Yes?” 

“I can’t--” Martin tries, tongue heavy in his mouth, “I can’t feel anything.  I can’t--”

Jon makes a small sound in the back of his throat, something worried and urgent.  He grabs Martin’s hand. “Come on, it’s freezing, let’s get you indoors.”

Inside, Jon steadies Martin in front of the fire, stokes it a few times and says, “Wait here,” before running off.  

It takes too long for Martin to register how frozen he is, but slowly the heat starts penetrating through the first layers of cold and wet, sending a cascade shivers from head to toe.  His teeth begin chattering, and he can sense the prickling of gooseflesh on his arms under the cover of a hoodie Martin doesn’t remember zipping himself into. He should strip it off, make himself dry, but he’s still too numb to do anything about it.  

He hears Jon coming back from the bedroom, looks away from the image of the fire dancing and twisting against the logs, in time to see him pause at the threshold. He’s holding a flanel, a dry change of clothes, but he simply stands there for a moment--his gaze charting across Martin’s body.  More so from the intense way Jon is watching him, than the way cold sends daggers of ice through his blood, Martin shivers.  

Jon drops everything on the floor, and crosses the room.  Stands in front of Martin.

 Mutely, Martin watches as Jon takes the tongue of the zip between his fingers, and begins to slowly drag it down.  The rasp of it coming undone seems terribly loud, alien and intrusive amidst the subdued hissing of firewood and Martin’s still chattering teeth.  Jon reaches the stop, he bites down on his bottom lip and begins pushing the hoodie off Martin’s shoulders, pressing the cuffs off Martin’s wrists.  It falls to the floor with a listless, wet thump. He slides his hands up Martin’s arms, back down, exhales shakily.

“You’re still trembling,” Jon says.  His eyes are so beautiful, so dark and resolute that it hurts Martin to look at him.  Every time he looks at Jon, some deep, vital piece of him feels utterly unpeeled. Jon reaches up, tapered fingers sliding against the curve of Martin’s jaw.  “Can you feel that?”

Martin nods.

“Do you trust me?” 

Martin blinks, his brow knitting in confusion.  “Always.”  

Jon licks his lips, then strains upward on his toes, his other hand fisting into the front of Martin’s vest, and pulls him down until their noses are brushing.  

“Can you feel this?” Jon asks again, and kisses him softly.  It’s quick and lingering all at once, achingly tender, and as soon as the kiss ends, it’s replaced by another.  He pulls away far enough to catch Martin’s eyes. “Yes?”  

Another kiss, this time more insistent, with a bit of pressure and heat behind it. “Is this okay,” he whispers against Martin’s lips, kisses him again, his breathing quickened. “I’m not wrong about this, am I? It’s not too late?” he asks. “Martin?” and something about the familiar sound of Martin’s name being shaped by Jon’s mouth, the way his hands clutch so tightly like it might cause Jon pain to let go--finally cracks through the coating of numbness.  

He loves the way Jon says his name.  

Martin gasps when light floods back into his veins--brilliant, and alive, and indescribable.  “Oh god,” he manages, then in one tight movement, Martin is putting his hands over Jon’s ears, tipping his face up again, and Jon sinks into him when Martin ducks and presses their mouths together.   

Fingers fasten themselves into the hair at the nape of Martin’s neck and Jon makes a sound that buzzes and tickles against his lips. Martin never wants it to stop.  A frantic need is pushing its way into his nerve endings, but what’s more-- more than excitement or happiness, more than fear-- is the relief that comes with kissing Jon It’s the sensation of this sudden, massive unburdening--of what , Martin has absolutely no idea.  Maybe there isn’t even a name for it, but some part of him goes so still and so silent, that Martin could cry from the respite. 

 When they separate, it’s by mere centimetres and Jon’s breathing is unsteady as it ghosts over Martin’s chin.  Martin pets helplessly at Jon’s hair, his narrow shoulders, the arch of his throat.  

“Don’t stop,” Jon whispers in a rush, straining and brushing their noses together, “Please don’t stop,” as if Martin might.  

He kisses Jon like their lives depend on it, his mind emptying of any sense of propriety, or subtlety, when he feels Jon lick against him. They murmur against each other as the angle shifts, Martin holds Jon in place, curls his tongue behind his teeth.  Jon makes a sound that starts deep in his chest and gets caught in Martin’s throat, something that easily could have been a moan. 

GodGodGod

Martin isn’t sure how long he can keep up trying to think straight with Jon pushing up against him this way, making these noises .

“This,” Jon murmurs, sucks at Martin’s bottom lip, pulls him down by the hair, and nibbles at the cold skin under Martin’s jaw, “God, this--

 Martin can feel the subtle shifting of nimble muscle under skin when Jon squirms and squirms, pressing up against Martin, unbalancing them, but the friction it sets off is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.  He can feel himself growing hard against Jon’s stomach. The past few months of unending stress, little sleep, the Lonely dimming all his emotions underneath a veil of apathy--it’s shocking to have the heat in his blood surge back into focus all at once.  He hadn’t even really noticed the stranglehold it had over something as basic as libido, but it must have done.  A year ago Martin never would have been able to sleep next to Jon without needing a moment beforehand locked in the loo with the shower running, then again upon waking up.  He burns for Jon. Every bit aches for him.

Before Martin spares a moment to think it over, he’s walking Jon backward, pressing his spine against the wall and lifting him up at the hips.  With arms wrapped across the small of Jon’s back to hold him in place, Martin lifts him, brings them closer to eye-level. He can kiss Jon this way without feeling like he might fall over on accident and squash him in the process. It’s probably rude.  He isn’t sure what Jon’s reaction to this might be. Jon always got cross when Tim used the top of his head as an armrest, but Jon’s expression doesn’t go pinched at all.

“Wow, all right,” Jon breathes, clears his throat, “that works.”  His pupils are dilated, hazy when he looks down at the seam between their chests, and he loops his arms around Martin’s shoulders.

They touch each other and everything feels vivid in a way that it hasn’t felt in ages.  Each feverish press of hands and lips, tongues and teeth, gentles the malignant dislocation at the pit of Martin’s being--forces out all thoughts that he is unwanted, unloved, and alone. 

“Get this off,” Jon murmurs, eyes closed as he ducks and places a kiss behind Martin’s ear, hands tugging at the rain damp collar of Martin’s shirt.  

“A--are you sure?” Martin stammers, blinded by the wanting , but not enough that he can’t pause to check where Jon’s desires place in this.  

Jon lets out a breathless laugh, fingers making little walking motions at the top knob of Martin’s spine as he gathers up the material in his hand..

“Jon, you have to say, ” Martin manages, snatching at Jon’s hand and bringing it back around, holds it clutched tight between the press of their chests.  “You have to tell me, because I--” he huffs and presses a quick kiss to Jon’s mouth. “We don’t have to--”

Jon sets his hands on either side of Martin’s face and leans their foreheads together.  “Trust me.”

“I would have been content just to be in the same room as you for the rest of my--” Martin starts to blurt, only to have it break off into a quiet moan when Jon noses into the crook of Martin’s neck, begins sucking lightly at the skin there.  He digs his nails into the fabric covering Jon’s thighs, pins him back up against the wall with a loud bump. They manage to knock over the dingy little lamp table by the sofa. It falls sideways, and so does the lamp, which fares far worse than the table--the harp bending and shattering the bulb.

They look down to it at the same time, back to each other.  Martin says, “Um, I should--” 

“--clean it in the morning,” Jon finishes, his eyes traveling in the direction of the bedroom.  

“Right,” Martin nods, feeling very amenable to that.  Jon doesn’t have on any socks and just because he can heal from a slice over his heel in four seconds, doesn’t make it painless-- so Martin does the easiest thing and carries him there.  Haltingly, blindly, neither of them seem keen to stop the kissing now that they’ve finally managed to start it.  Jon holds on and nips at Martin’s lips while Martin fumbles behind himself for the door handle, and trips them through it, sliding Jon back down to the floor in the process.  

“Are we really doing this?” Martin asks, breathless, head full of nonsense as Jon sticks his hands underneath the hem of his shirt.  He pets over the swell of Martin’s hips before giving him a little shove onto the edge bed and crawling into his lap. “Oh my god, we’re really doing this,” Martin says, a little delirious now, the words blurred against Jon’s lips.

“You sound so surprised,” Jon says, hands once again set to their task of ridding Martin of his damp clothing.  “Was it not headed here?”

“It’s only--I didn’t think this was something you did. Or do. Or.. like?”

Jon pauses, a vaguely uncomfortable expression crossing his face.  “I do like. It’s just not always predicta--sometimes I just don’t need-- and I’ve never really felt this much or this way about another person, before I’ve even managed to--” He takes a deep breath and tries blowing a bit of fallen hair out of his eyes in frustration.  “Does it have to have a label actually?”

Martin considers it for a moment. “No,” he shakes his head, combs back Jon’s hair with his fingers.  “Just.. don’t let me do anything that makes you uncomfortable. Yeah?”  

“Okay,” Jon breathes, sounding relieved and diving back in for a kiss which turns open-mouthed and insistent almost immediately.  Martin’s shirt finally gets pulled up over his head, and Jon’s eyes track a heated path across his shoulders before Martin is yanking at the back of Jon’s collar to do the same.  Jon helps to slip it off before tossing it aside and pressing their chests together.

The first impression of unclothed skin is almost too much, eliciting a thrill that sizzles down Martin’s spine and causes his hands to seize against Jon’s hips.  He whimpers and another icicle of loneliness shatters in some unseen place. Martin can’t find it within himself to be worried whether it’ll be back later or not.  Not with Jon running his hands up and down Martin’s back, his lips against Martin’s ear, and oh, he’s shaking too.  

“Are you nervous?” Martin asks.

“Yes,” Jon whispers against Martin’s shoulder, places a small kiss there, “are you?”

“I am.”  Martin admits, relieved that they’re both laid bare, both exposed this way, both full of simple, human trepidation.  After everything they’ve been through, this should seem impossible--the openness that is, and witnessing your own revealing at the hands of another .   There’s nothing more terrifying than being a thing that breathes and wants and needs, that feels tender in all the tender places.  Things hurt you here for that--not just monsters, but other humans too.

But all Martin feels right now, is safe.  He doesn’t remember the last time he felt safe.  He isn’t sure he ever has, full stop.

 “In a good way though, right? Good nerves,” Jon laughs, a little awkward. Martin has never felt so kind toward his own clumsiness before.  There is no plot or plan here, nothing he needs to remain hypervigilant of, no part of himself he needs to shut down in order to function. There is only the warmth of Jon’s breath on his cheek, and this small, hopeful moment unfolding between them.

“Yeah,” Martin says softly, “the best way, actually.”  

Jon’s thumb runs a small, tight circle low on Martin’s stomach, goes lower until it’s dipping beneath the band of his pyjama bottoms.  Martin leans back on his hand, gasps. “Please,” he blurts when the pad of Jon’s thumb nearly brushes over the head of his cock. 

This seems to have some potent effect on Jon.  He groans and pushes Martin’s shoulders down onto the mattress, lets himself be pulled flush when Martin cups the back of his neck and hauls him down into a kiss, braces a forearm over his spine to grind them together.  Jon’s briefs and Martin’s cotton joggers have done nothing so far to disguise either of their erections, but Martin had been careful not to press until he was sure. That worry drops from his mind the instant Jon’s hips roll against him. 

“F--fuck,” Jon says, and does it again.

It’s uncoordinated, beautiful and messy and everything as their arms tangle. Lips go off kilter from where they’re meant to be.  Neither can seem to afford the other space for where their hands want to roam.  Jon seems keen to finish undressing, but he won’t keep off Martin’s lap long enough to take off his pants.  His briefs have ridden low in the process of their groping and fumbling, and Martin’s mouth waters when he feels the damp tip of Jon’s cock catch against his navel on a particularly rough jerk of his hips. He digs his fingers dig into the hollow of Jon’s waist, draws nails against his spine, feels the skin where it sculpts over bone, down to the swell of his bottom and sticks his hands underneath the stretchy fabric of his pants. He squeezes lightly and feels Jon’s forehead drop against his collarbone to gasp.

“Martin,” Jon pants into his mouth, weakly pushes at the waist of Martin’s joggers, “Martin …” His fingers hook and scrape at Martin like he intends to fit them into one skin this way.  

“Yeah come on,” Martin breathes, thankful for whatever part of his brain is still operating within the parameters of sense.  “Let me, let me just-- oof, ” he wheezes out when Jon’s jabby elbow collides with his solar plexus.

Jon winces. “Shit, sorry, sorry.  Well, if you’d just take off your damn pants-- ” and after a moment of ungainly flailing, the joggers and briefs are kicked away and Martin is laughing breathlessly at how something generally considered sexy is turned ridiculous by their urgency to actually get to that part of it.

That lasts for all of three seconds.  Long enough for it to register that Jon is completely starkers and draped on top of him, looking down at Martin with dark, wide eyes.

Carefully, Martin traces the sharp line where Melanie took the Slaughter’s blade to him.  He opens his hand against John’s throat and fits his fingertips over the small, dented marks laid there by the Corruption, and something tinted with anger fizzles low in Martin’s core. Those don’t belong there, he thinks, they aren’t right and they hurt, and he pulls Jon down. Brings the graceful arch where Jon’s shoulder meets his neck to his mouth and Martin presses teeth just there .  He still smells of rainwater, clean and unrefined, but with an undercurrent of something darker lingering underneath  Martin can’t place the note. There’s a reason for that of course--it doesn’t occur naturally in the world. It’s the smell of power clinging to Jon, and there’s no perfectly accurate way to describe it. It might even serve as a warning to others, this scent that makes the hairs on the back of your neck prick, alerting an instinct that screams stay away.  

Clearly a message Martin did not receive. 

Jon groans and latches his hands into Martin’s hair, shudders as Martin sucks a bruise into his skin, worries at the spot and licks over the work he’s made of it when finished.  Martin tries, desperately, not to address the possessive thing at the back of his mind urging him forward.

“That’s going to--” Jon pants, eyelashes fluttering, “you know that’s just going to heal.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Martin mumbles, because it doesn’t , what matters is that he put it there, if only for a moment, and that moment is marked in the universe.  Insignificant or not, fleeting, but enduring in this singular space. A burning, perfect brand that pushes away at all the stains of cruelty.  He draws fingers down Jon’s back and bites down hard on his own bottom lip when Jon arches cat-like up into it. It’s surreal. There have always been ideas, fantasies of Jon spent at his own hand when Martin was too weak or tired, too fed up with himself to try and blank out his mind.  But even the most meticulously constructed of reveries are pale and inadequate, unable to even be measured against this .  Jon is responsive, demonstrative and eager.  Martin had never even thought it might be like this, but Jon’s hands are sure where is own are subdued.  He’s never had anyone shower him with this much affection in his life, and Martin wonders if this is how it’s supposed to be.  He’d always hoped, of course, but no practical experience ever proved it one way or the other.  His mother always shrugged out of his childlike attempts to hug or cuddle, eventually he’d just stopped trying.  As a teen, then an adult, he went on to subconsciously select romantic partners who followed the theme of use without reciprocity. There weren’t many of them, but the damage was done by the time the relationship ended.  It took years to realise the cycle of it, and what complexes it had left behind. Even more difficult, was trying to move past a life that was engineered to make you feel guilty for wanting to be loved.

Jon isn’t like that.  

If anything he’s profoundly the opposite--seemingly determined to learn every little detail of what makes Martin shudder, and sigh, and moan, and wants to know it all right now.  Martin hears himself whine, embarrassingly high-pitched and reedy, when Jon shuffles down his body and licks over a nipple.

Jon’s head bolts upright at the sound, hair wild from Martin’s fingers, his eyes triumphant.  “Where else?” he demands to know.  

“Lots of places,” Martin confesses.  “With you? Everywhere.” It’s not flattery.  Not a lie. Anywhere Jon touches comes alive. There is a literalness to it.  Martin feels alight with feelings and sensations he was beginning to fear he might always be trying to always reach toward from across a great distance.  Jon is drawing Martin into focus, and Martin can’t help but let slip a giggle at that. Wonders, a bit hysterically, if this might count as some sort of highly convoluted--yet very effective--given statement.  Another treatise on how to anchor out of the Lonely.  

Jon grunts and moves down Martin’s body, the journey prolonged by all his curious caresses against Martin’s skin, all the places Jon must pause to lick, bite, or kiss.

“Jon what are you--” Martin starts to ask when Jon resists his efforts to pull him back up, then he realises exactly what Jon is about to do when the first warm exhale breaks against his hip.  He manages to squeak out, “You don’t have to-- oh,” when Jon slips the head of Martin’s dick into his mouth and begins to suck.  Hands flailing, Martin clutches the bedhead to steady himself, tries not come immediately because it’s been forever, and this is Jon, and he’s been so eaten up with wanting him that a part of Martin’s mind tries to reject that this is even a reality.  Maybe you died.  Maybe you’re both dead, his hindbrain offers up, unhelpfully.  If so, no wonder The End is so passive, this isn’t a bad deal at all.

He tries to keep from arching up into Jon’s mouth the best he can.  Doesn’t want to be rude or make it complicated--and oh god, he can hear when the suction breaks at the tip, the slick, obscene pop that Martin’s brain rushes to somehow associate with Jon’s mouth. Jon’s lovely mouth, always either prim or raving, pressed into charming scowls and lopsided smiles .  

It’s messy, as if Jon isn’t trying for rhythm or any discernible technique, just grasping at sensation.  That’s fine, that’s brilliant.  Martin likes it, likes the feel of too much saliva, and a little bit of teeth.  He likes the idea that maybe Jon doesn’t have much experience to draw from either.  It puts Martin at ease. He just wants, desperately, to make Jon feel good too.

Martin focuses on that tight knot of pleasure building in his groin and gulps down air when Jon pulls off to rub his lips against the fraenulum.  He doesn’t dare look down to watch because that would absolutely bring this to an abrupt, unceremonious, conclusion.  God, but that’s really nice, and, “That--th--that’s really nice,” he says out loud, mortified and unable to keep the stammer out of it.  Emits some broken, bereft sound when that source heat leaves him, but then Jon is crawling back over Martin, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand before collapsing to pepper Martin’s face and throat with kisses.  His thumbs rub over the freckles on Martin’s cheekbones, and Martin groans into his mouth, kisses back because it feels a little bit like the only thing keeping him here.  If he stops, there might be room for the distance again, and that’s a hateful thought.

Martin snatches at Jon, at them both, curls his fingers around where they’re blood hot and leaking on one another.  Jon chokes on air, doubles up a bit when he strokes them together, then moves to bat Martin’s hand away.

Martin blanches. “God, sorry, did I--”

“No, I just want you,” Jon says, voice a thing made of air and gravel.

“Oh, well,” a verging-on-desperate laugh bubbles out of Martin’s throat, “I’m really not going anywhere. You have me.”

“I want--” Jon starts. Stops.  Opens his mouth, then closes it again before propelling himself across Martin’s torso and swiping something from the top of the bedside table.  He pushes the small pot of petroleum jelly that Martin had bought their first night here into Martin’s palm, then presses up on his elbows and looks down at him expectantly.

“Oh,” Martin says, then, “oh you want me to--” he gulps nervously, but his thumb is already wedging open the lid.  “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“I think we’ve proven it takes a lot more than--” he raises a suggestive, slightly sardonic eyebrow, “to hurt me.”

“That’s not the point.”  His eyes go back to the scars. Jon slides two fingers under Martin’s chin, presses up and catches his gaze again.

“I know,” Jon says, “and you won’t.  You won’t hurt me. Martin please just--” his elbows buckle, his hand slides behind the back of Martin's neck, fingers pressing into the tense cords of muscle just below the skin. “ Okay. Okay, um. So, after the Coffin, Daisy was in Basira’s arms, then they were gone, and I was alone.  I thought about it, then. I-- I couldn’t remember the last time it was someone touched me without trying to tear the life right out of me.”  His fingers soothe and stroke through Martin’s hair. He swallows. “At night I’m always next to you, and it’s like I never want the morning to come, but at the same time I feel like I can’t breathe for your being there.  I’d forgotten what that felt like, I think.  Please believe me; you aren’t the only one who wants this.”

Martin stares up at him, at Jon’s face and the unguarded expression there-- equal parts insecure, and afraid, pleading for Martin to understand what it is to feel this way. 

There isn’t room anymore, Martin thinks, to be imprecise.

“I love you,” he says, eyes unflinching from Jon’s. “You don’t have to say it back. I just-- I need you to hear it.”

Jon’s lips press into a line, but his expression goes soft.  “You’re the best part of me,” he answers, bears himself down against Martin to kiss him again.  “How could I not love you?”

Martin’s heart glitches in his chest, and it’s all too much.  What little distance there is between them grates at Martin’s nerves--all the months of getting close and pulling apart, the constant fear of loss, a lifetime of giving so much, and getting so little.  He can’t hold it inside himself anymore. Jon is right, they need to share the mad weight of this love so it’s no longer a thing pressing down against the shoulders, but held in their hands. Their mouths find each other again, seeking contact with the sort of neediness that feels both frenzied and reassuring.   

Jon writhes against him and Martin’s cock slips and presses up along the cleft of his arse.   “Christ. Jesus fucking Christ,” Martin says in a rushed exhale, and gathers slick onto his fingers.  “I would have gotten something less--” he winces, “I didn’t think we’d be--god, nevermind,” he slides a leg up between Jon’s thighs and flips their positions, catching himself on the elbows.  Jon tumbles obligingly into the warm hollow left by Martin’s body. 

After a bit more of the kissing, Jon seems to sense that Martin is once again waiting for permission, and he seizes Martin by the wrist and pushes it down between them, his mouth falling open when knuckles brush down the length of his cock.  Martin has to stop trying to snog him then, turn his head to the side and get himself back under control when Jon’s legs spread further apart.   

“You’re going to be the death of me,” Martin mutters, miserably turned on, against Jon’s temple.

“Don’t even joke--” Jon begins, then tenses.  His eyes flutter closed at the first press of a finger against him, circling, applying pressure as Martin warms and smears the petrolatum.

Careful, Martin thinks, he has to be so careful.  The fact that Jon is far from fragile, could take it fast and rough, doesn’t even register.  Why would it? When Martin’s thoughts have slipped to Jon, even at the height of Jon’s discord with him, there were only muddled plans of what it might take to get him contented and speechless and relaxed for once.  

 He kisses Jon’s neck over and over, gentle, but pausing to suck small bruises here and there, watching as they fade from sight right in front of him.  He works Jon open as diligently as he can, unable to tear his eyes away from each little micro-expression of discomfort or awkwardness as it melts into pleasure.  Learns what makes Jon feel good through the trial of touch, and doesn’t take it for granted that he’s being allowed to do this at all. Christ, they could have easily been dead.  The least they’re owed are a few moments in which to forget about it.

“Martin..”

Martin shakes his head, twists his fingers until he hears a whisper of Jon’s voice in his exhale.  “Not yet.”

By the time Martin feels confident that they’re both ready, Jon is well on his way to looking a wreck. The coarser grey hairs are trying to curl with their combined heat, his lips are swollen from kissing, and Martin can feel how the pulse in Jon’s throat rabbits when Martin noses up against it.  Jon makes a confused little groan when Martin’s fingers slip out of him, but seems to be placated as he’s nudged onto his side for Martin to settle in behind with one arm under Jon’s head, his other hand gripping him by the hip. He can hold Jon close like this. It’s his favourite way to wake up in the night when he’s gripped with nightmares. Martin opens his eyes and Jon is already there--held safe in his arms--Martin’s body curled protectively around him.   As he should be.

The touch of his own hand is almost too much at this point, but Martin manages to slick himself, a stilted whimper eeking out from behind his teeth as he mouths over John’s shoulder blade.  “This okay?” he asks, voice shaking all the way out. “Are you okay?”

Jon does a quarter-twist at the neck and shoulders, fingers light through the hair over Martin’s ears as he draws their mouths together.  He doesn’t answer with words, but his hips move backward, seeking contact, his hand slips down between them, wrapping around Martin’s cock and causing all the air to leave the room at once as Jon guides him inside.

Something dark and ugly jolts inside of Martin at that second--something wretched and grasping with a jealousy that doesn’t belong to Martin, but is about Martin.  And it hates Jon.  Hates him for reasons Martin can only imagine, whispering doubts into that black, forsaken corner of his heart--the sort Martin can never admit to himself. It spreads like spilled ink, sending cold and numbness through every bone, every cell, falling across him as a shadow would.  He freezes, closes his eyes and tries pushing it away, hears Jon’s sharp intake of breath. Even though Jon is right there, present and solid and true, Martin feels that pit of inexplicable distance trying to create a chasm of emptiness between them. 

Jon pulls Martin even closer, twines their legs together, kisses him hard.  “Belong here,” he whispers, his voice gentle and at odds with how firm his hands cling to Martin.  “Belong here, with me. Please.” And just like that--simple, so very, very simple--the Lonely leaves.  Its last tendrils uncoiling and dying all at once--all the nothingness and the fear and the ambivalence.

Jon looks at Martin, his eyes full of wonderment as if Martin is the most amazing things he’s ever seen. “Christ Martin, you really are --”

Martin pushes their mouths together, throat aching.  He can’t hear it right now, he might start crying--from relief, from all of it.  If before it felt like trying to access his emotions from behind a wall, now it’s as if the wall has crumbled right at his feet and it’s all come flooding out at once.  He’s drowning in the rawness of being, but it’s a beautiful sort of overwhelming as Martin crashes back into himself. Here’s the anger, and here’s the joy, here’s the grief, and here’s the loneliness--still there the way it has always been, but gentled from a life living alongside it.  Not rotten and reticulated at the middle of him, no longer large and infecting every bit that was once good and tender, distorting it beyond recognition. Here is the love that has always been there, the thing Martin learned how to do on his own because he knew what it was to be deprived of it, but it’s bright again.  It’s so very bright.  

“I love you,” Martin murmurs against Jon’s lips, over and over, eventually breathing the words into his mouth as Martin breaches his body and finds his way inside. He goes slowly, works himself in a little at a time before pulling out and starting again.  Jon reaches behind himself, fingernails scrabbling and stinging where he finds purchase on Martin’s thigh. He tries pushing into it, tries pulling Martin forward, but Martin doesn’t want that yet. He wants Jon to feel what he feels. Grabbing Jon’s arm, Martin pulls it around, holds it bent and pinned to Jon’s chest, his thumb rubbing across the Desolation marked skin over the top of his hand.  

Even when he’s bottomed out, Martin still doesn’t let go.  He presses his face to the back of Jon’s neck and basks in the certainty of it--of him in Jon, and Jon on him, and the connection that goes beyond two bodies which can’t be put into words--how the significance of it will never come close to being expressed no matter how tightly they intertwine.  Martin thinks of the other avatars and their flat acceptance of cruelty and suffering. He thinks of their coldness, the dispassionate way they view life and death, their constant struggle to touch a power that only finds uses for them.  It seems like such a horrible, unknowable type of love.  Broken. Meaningless.

How could they give this up?  The vulnerability, that is, and the terrible-beautiful truth of it. The interminable potential of being.

Jon’s restless energy begins to weaken, and he allows himself to be held.  “Oh,” he says quietly, and Martin knows he can feel it too.   

“Yeah,” Martin agrees.

Slow.  Stop. Slow.  Breathe. Martin tells himself, but he keeps forgetting and going light-headed.

 

Before long, his body wins out and Martin stops trying to resist the ache pulsing through his blood.  He begins rocking inside Jon, small movements in and out, his heart pounding so loudly in his chest that he thinks Jon might feel it against the line of his back.  They can’t last like this, no matter how much either one of them might want to draw it out, there’s been too much lead-in. Jon was right, Martin has never worked up this much feeling for a person before he’s even managed to kiss them.  

While the pace of his thrusts are still slow, they pick up in strength and intensity to the point of shaking.  He has Jon making those sounds again, the open ones from earlier that slice Martin’s nerve-endings raw.  Martin buries his face in the crook of Jon’s neck and whines against him, little repetitive vowels that make it so so so obvious how overwhelmed he is with how good it feels.  Jon’s arm curls up and around the back of Martin’s head, holds him there.  The other hand grasps blindly at the sheets, gathering it in his fist and locking out his elbow to create any sort of leverage to steady himself, rather than let Martin incidentally fuck him off the edge of the bed.  

At some point Martin has let go of Jon’s hip and wrapped his fingers around the base of Jon’s throat, squeezing--not tightly enough to cause any discomfort, but just enough to hold Jon in place as his thrusts go erratic. In this position he keeps rubbing up and over Jon’s prostate. If it were Martin, he’d be oversensitive to the point of pain after the third time it happened.  He’d be out of bed and flashing mean eyes at whomever kept trying it on him. But Jon is different than him. It makes him moan and push back, trying to reclaim that little zing of pleasure as soon as its retreated.

“Is this enough,” Martin pants into Jon’s neck, tries to shut out the slick sound of their skin pounding together because it’s driving him a bit feral. “Is this enough to make you--” he doesn’t wait for an answer.  Jon might not even know himself, and now is definitely not the time to experiment. Later though--any time Jon feels like it’s something he might want. Right now, Martin has to do whatever it takes to get him over that threshold and tip him into unmitigated, thoughtless bliss.  He lets go of Jon’s throat, his palm forming over the profile over his body as he pushes it down--fingers dipping into the hollows between ribs, over the uneven tan of scarred skin mapping across the dip of his waist, the jut of his iliac crest, lets his hand rest splayed low on Jon’s abdomen for a moment and feels the soft swell each time Martin sheaths himself fully inside.  He grabs Jon’s hand from it’s deathgrip on the duvet and makes him feel it too.

“Oh my god,” Jon’s breath frays off immediately, goes ragged and quick and oh, oh dear, Martin thinks he knows what that means.  

He can’t take Jon in hand fast enough.  Barely has enough time to wrap his fingers around Jon’s cock and give him one tight pull, before Jon is shuddering in his arms and coming.  He clenches down around Martin’s cock, and Martin’s inhale hisses between his teeth. Tight little ah, ah ah’s free themselves from his lips, then finally Martin’s name when he’s been wrung of every bit of pleasure and left spasming in the wake of it.  He can see the white tips of Jon’s front teeth, the soft wet pink of his tongue as it darts out to lick over his bottom lip. He’s beautiful, unbearably beautiful.  Martin forces his hand away, balls it into a fist on top of the damp spot Jon has made, and wills himself to be still as Jon’s breathing stabilises. He can’t manage it completely, down below he’s still moving, cock rocking shallowly, in and out.  

Jon twists, yanks Martin back by the hair and kisses him open-mouthed and messy.  “Come on, Martin,” he murmurs between licks, and bites. He draws his hips forward, then rolls them back, smiles against Martin’s lips when Martin makes that high, humiliatingly young sound again.  “Show me,” he says, eyes intense where they fixate on Martin’s face, making him feel more exposed than he ever has in his entire life. 

Martin hauls Jon to him, arms wrapping around the slight weight of his body, immobilising him as his own hips snap forward, needy and urgent.  He can’t stop saying Jon’s name, it’s wrenched from his mouth over and over and starts to lose meaning, he forgets why he’s saying it but the constant litany of Jon and Jon and god, and Jon won’t stop.  He’s maybe forgotten his own name, but Jon hasn’t and he says it with such infinite gentleness.  Part of Martin is confused that he’s called something, that he’s not a bundle of raw tension and energy. Jon is making noises of his own, breathy and quiet compared what they were moments ago, but still turning Martin inside out.  He lifts his ear from where it’s dropped to Jon’s shoulder, and presses their foreheads together. The angle must be hell on Jon, Martin thinks he might be holding on too tight, but he never once complains or tries to extricate himself from the unyielding circle of Martin’s embrace. Jon is fighting to keep his eyes open, watching. Even as Martin can’t bear it and closes his own, he knows Jon is still watching.  Can feel it.  

They’re not kissing anymore, but their lips brush wet and aimless from the force of Martin’s thrusts.  He can’t take it another minute. Martin cries out and drives up into Jon once, then again, every muscle going rigid, the world contracting to a sharp, dazzling point.  Distantly, he can feel Jon’s fingernails digging half-circles into flank, his other hand squeezing over the top of Martin’s so hard that it sends cold tingles down into his wrist and elbow.  He can hear the blood in his ears reach a staticy fever pitch. Jon murmurs words, warm and encouraging, nudges their noses together. Martin can’t parse those words right now, but he knows Jon is telling him to let go. 

The release crashes into him on the final thrust where he buries himself to the root, pulsing again and again, and this isn’t coming, Martin thinks.  It is, obviously, but never has coming unspooled Martin in a tidal swell of sensation and colour.  It surges through him, burning away all that brutal, choking yearning, until all that’s left is the fire.

It takes a moment to come back to himself, every bit of Martin feels blurred and untethered.  His eyelashes are wet. Powerful aftershocks make him double up against Jon, stealing Martin’s breath with each swell.

“Martin,” Jon murmurs, a thumb smoothing over an eyelid, over a cheekbone, coming away wet.  He kisses Martin’s forehead.

“Just a minute,” Martin says, voice small and overwhelmed. “Please.”

“All right.”  The hand Jon is still holding is brought up to his mouth.  He kisses each knuckle.

When Martin has gathered himself back to sorts, he carefully pulls out, cleans Jon with whatever he grabs off the floor, and helps Jon situate himself onto his back.  They stay that way for a moment, separate and sweaty on the sheets, the lines of their arms and legs barely touching. Martin moves toward Jon when his body has cooled, heedless of the mess, or that it’ll be daylight soon and they’ve barely slept. His arm falls across Jon’s abdomen and he rests his head against Jon’s chest, listens to the way Jon’s heart thunders underneath his ear.

The shrill whine of static doesn’t stop, however, and even though Martin still feels boneless and blissed out on an endorphin high, it seems like that effect might have tapered off by now.  Martin furrows his brow, brain slowly putting it together. His eyes shift to the bedside table, and sure enough, a tape recorder is balanced at the corner, prickling idly as the sprockets revolve.

“Has that been on the entire time?”  he asks.

“I ah--” Jon sucks in an apologetic breath, “long enough to be rude.  Very very rude.  Not sure which one of us set it off.”

“Right.  We’ll just, you know, keep well track of that one,” Martin laughs, and if his cheeks weren’t already ruddy with heat, he’d probably feel each individual capillary swell scarlet with embarrassment.  Not out of shame, god no, he’s never been so full up with pride and contentment, but they can only really guess at what’s listening in on the other end of those tapes. He doesn’t let himself think too much on it though, is rather accustomed to the peculiar voyeurism by now, and it’s honestly far from the worst thing ever to be chronicled on tape.

“I meant it you know,” Jon murmurs after a moment, his fingers carding through Martin’s hair.  “You really are the best part of me.”

“You’re the best part of you,” Martin corrects, “especially the bit right here,” he presses a kiss to the spot low on Jon’s chest where an ever underestimated human heart thrums. 

Jon swallows.  “I’m afraid something bad will happen.  What if--”

“Hey” Martin murmurs, holding tightly to Jon, shushing him and stroking the bare skin of his stomach.  “We will get through it together, all right?  I know that sounds hackneyed, but as long as you’re you, and I’m me, we are in this together.  I promise.”

“And if I’m not me anymore?”

“We aren’t going to let that happen.  No--” Martin raises his voice, propping himself up on his elbow when Jon tries cutting in, “even if I’m dead, even if it hurts, you’re going to remember us.  You’re going to remember now, and how it felt, and how much I love you.  That doesn’t just disappear because one of us is gone.” Martin stays staring down at Jon for a moment to be sure he isn’t going to try and disagree.  Slowly, he lies back down. “Also, I’d be very cross, and I honestly don’t know what I’d be capable of, so best to leave yourself as is.”

Jon huffs a laugh, and rolls over onto his belly, his arms crossing underneath the pillow. “Martin Blackwood.”

“Mh?”  Martin turns on his side toward Jon, whose eyes are slowly beginning to close.  A peaceful smile touches his lips.

“I’m afraid you’ve marked me.”  He says quietly, and Martin knows he doesn’t mean in his body or even in his mind--but in that last, tender place where no darkness can find purchase.

 

He watches as Jon falls asleep, and the clouds outside begin to give way to sunrise.  Martin reaches out, fits his fingers into the furrow of Jon’s spine, a barely-there touch that he runs down the length of Jon’s back.  Is this mine, he wonders, not completely, but partly, the way it must always be-- a mosaic of life, made of choices and experiences, and the glue which fits the pieces together, protecting the whole. 

The dawn, brilliant and unhurried, sends gentle fingers of light from between the shutters which press down against Jon’s shoulder blades like the thin strings of a violin.  The tape recorder spins its last peal of static, and switches off.