It's the slamming of the front door that alerts Martin to Jon's return. A series of shuffling sounds comes next and Martin can imagine the movement that would accompany each: Jon will wrestle with his jacket and its too-long sleeves, toe each shoe off carefully but leave them as a tripping hazard in front of the door, run his hands through his hair in a hopeful, but ultimately fruitless, effort to comb down any flyaways.
Martin would smile, charmed as always, if it weren't for the fact that if he opened his mouth, he's certain that fog would pour from the gaps between his teeth and fill the room, the whole cottage, the entire Scottish countryside and snatch away any unlucky enough to be caught up in its endless, swirling depths.
So instead Martin buries his head deeper below the blankets he's pulled over himself in an attempt to either ward off the chill or simulate human contact. He's not certain which, just knows that he'd been fixing a cup of tea while Jon had been out on his walk when the Lonely had fallen upon him, as heavy and warm as a blanket of fresh snow. There hadn't even been anything obviously upsetting about the cabinet he'd been searching through; just the tin of tea they'd bought a couple days ago and a chipped, dusty mug that lay forgotten at the very back. It had what was once a flock of geese on it, all but one of them worn to nothing except their vague outlines. The last remaining goose flew at the head of the formation, tips of its wings fading into the porcelain backdrop.
He'd stared at that goose while it flew forever in its lonely certainty and the sound of his own breathing had been overcome by the rush of waves. Martin had blinked and found himself back in bed. The cold air of the bedroom had smelled of brine and fresh fish and he'd pulled the blankets over his head to lay there, shivering.
The cold isn't so noticeable now. It's almost warm. Martin is careful to not move, imagines the outline of his own paltry body heat like the chalk outline of a corpse he'd seen in some of those really, really bad cop dramas as a teen. Here, there was once a person.
Here, there is nothing but an empty shell.
A shudder wracks its way through him and the waves roar, crash and beat against white chalk cliffs that crumble and give way beneath their fury.
"Martin?" He hears Jon call from the kitchen. The sound echoes in his head, bounces off the walls of his skull and distorts with every collision until it is nothing but static, white noise, white foam clinging to his thighs as he stands in the ocean.
Left the kettle on, Martin realizes somewhat distantly. The shrieking had stopped a while ago, but the hob was likely still on, heating a kettle full of nothing for an empty house. Sometimes, Martin wonders if Jon feels like he lives with a ghost. There's irony somewhere in there, but Martin's too tired, too cold to try to find it.
There is a board in the hall that creaks when you step on it. Martin learned this the first night they spent here, when the insomnia and the cold and the nightmares had kept him up. He’d wandered the cottage, touching the peeling wallpaper and drawing lines in the dust just to remind himself that he still could. He’d checked on Jon, curled up small on the couch, arms wrapped tight around his middle like he was protecting himself from an inevitable blow. The fire had long since died, leaving embers smoldering warmly in its wake, casting a dull glow that had somehow been trapped in the silver of Jon’s hair.
Martin had stared, longer than he’d like to admit, just taking in the rise and fall of Jon’s shoulders, the movement of his eyes behind his eyelids. Then, Jon had sighed, murmured something unintelligible and Martin had startled back to himself, beat a hasty retreat before he could be caught watching Jon at his most vulnerable.
The board, unassuming, a whorl marring the otherwise straight grain of the wood, located a half step outside the bedroom door, had seemed to scream when Martin stepped on it. Like the wail of something dying (something riddled with worms, perhaps), the cry of the board had pierced the night. Martin had frozen with his hands braced on the doorframe, terrified of lifting his foot and causing a repeat performance.
On the couch, Jon had shifted a little, then fell still. Martin had eased his way back into the bedroom and mentally marked down the board. Even now, he takes great pains to avoid it.
Jon has no such qualms.
He has loud, distinctive footsteps, the gait of someone who’s never agonized over the thud of his heel against the floor or noted the quiver of delicate trinkets locked in a display case as he walked by. Clearly, Jon didn’t spend his early twenties walking on the tips of his toes to minimize his presence, gliding along on socked feet that create little more than a soft shush-shush-shushing sound, has never felt the satisfaction of slipping by an open room and leaving its occupants none the wiser of his passing (there’s that irony, again).
The board cries out in distress, but Martin has already had ample warning of Jon’s approach.
“Martin?” Jon asks, again, and from the sound of his voice, he’s hovering in the doorway, unsure if his presence is welcome. “Everything alright?”
Martin would like to respond, he really would, it’s just that talking seems like an awful lot of work right now and his body is so very heavy.
“The hob was on and I,” Jon hesitates, breathes deep. The taste of sea spray is still heavy in the air. “I’m coming in,” he warns, giving Martin a chance to unearth himself and smile a false smile and pretend that everything is fine and neither of them can feel the wet weight of the air.
Carpet lines the bedroom floor, thick and green and pressed into a track at the foot of the bed from a previous occupant’s many hours of pacing, but Martin still knows when Jon settles down on the ground from the soft thump of his knees and careful exhale that speaks of some sort of previously ignored pain redoubling its efforts to be noticed.
There’s a lengthy pause. Awkward, no doubt, for Jon, but Martin can’t quite bring himself to care.
“Martin,” Jon says at last, and some mean part of Martin that used to be so much smaller wants to laugh. He sounds like a broken record--no, a broken cassette, wound and rewound, the same two syllables over and over. Use your words, Martin thinks, and it sounds like his mum. A twinge goes through him, the first thing to pierce the cold.
“Are you--Are you here?” Jon breathes out, shuddery and slow. “With me?” The waves recede with his breath and Martin is suddenly aware of the tears sliding their way down his cold cheeks to seep into his pillow. Finding himself in control of his body, Martin works one hand free of his blankets and holds his thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart. Barely. Almost. He trusts Jon to pick one and understand.
A sigh, relief tangible in the rush of near scalding air across Martin’s fingers, indicates that Jon does.
“Okay, that’s… that’s fine, Martin.” Movement and rustling sound from beyond the barrier of quilts and blankets he’s constructed and Jon hesitates, again. “I’m going to touch you.” It’s meant as another warning, a question, but to Martin it only sounds like a promise. So he flips his hand over, offering his palm to Jon.
Jon takes it, and for once his hands are warmer than Martin’s.
One hand cradles Martin’s while the other encircles his wrist, fingers resting light where his veins pump sluggish blood. How must this look, to an outside, voyeuristic eye? A pale hand flopped out from below a burial shroud, held onto like it’s a lifeline, a tether calling the soul of the departed back to the living? It makes something in Martin’s gut twist even as the waves swell with vitriol and crash back down over his head, sweeping him away with the salt and sand of the ocean.
Martin thinks he’d like to see the Dead Sea. All that salt makes it nearly impossible to dive below its surface and get lost in its depths, forcing you instead to float along its surface, weightless. But it’s too salty for any flora or fauna, and that seems like a terribly lonely place to be, where your only friends are halophilic bacteria.
It’s a passing thought as he’s raked across the seafloor, lungs screaming as an awful sort of clarity settles over him. It’s safer, down here, Martin finds himself thinking as rocks dig into the soft skin of his sides. Everything is so far away, all the pain and ruin that await him and Jon in London are incapable of reaching him here. He can’t be hurt because there is no one to hurt him. It is just him and the sea and his blood slowly clouding the roiling water.
The current sweeps him along, caught in an undertow that shouldn’t exist so far from shore. Ahead, an abyss opens up, a trench in the seafloor that promises solitude deep enough to swallow him whole and Martin feels the first spike of fear.
No. No, no no nononono, this isn’t right, everything is Dark and Choking and Vast as the chasm yawns before him and he’s so horribly Alone in the face of all this fear and he reaches out desperately but it’s pointless because no light can penetrate this deep in the ocean and--
A hand intertwines with his.
And it squeezes.
And the illusion shatters.
He’s cold. Dry, surprisingly enough, except for the tears steadily leaking down his face. He’s pressed up against something warm and sharp--Jon--sprawled on the floor between his splayed legs. Jon’s hands work soothing lines up and down Martin’s back as he murmurs gentle platitudes into his ear. Martin tucks his face against Jon’s neck, lets his long hair act as a curtain as he cries messily into the warm dark. His nose is cold and he can feel the subtle shudder that moves through Jon as Martin winds his arms around him.
"It's okay," Jon says and presses a kiss to Martin's hair, "you're okay. You’re here, with me and we’re together. We’re together.”
Martin sobs harder.
They sit like that for a long time, wrapped around each other upon the terribly ugly carpet. Martin’s tears eventually dry up and he’s left shaking against Jon, until that, too, gives way to a shiver borne from the exhaustion and cold that have settled deep in his bones. Jon rocks them back and forth, still talking in that low, calming voice. He doesn’t complain when Martin sneaks his icy hands below the hem of his jumper to press his palms against Jon’s back, fingering the knobs of his spine.
They pull apart, eventually, and Jon wipes away the last remnants of Martin’s tears with the pads of his thumbs.
“Okay?” Jon asks. Martin shakes his head, and Jon gives him a wry smile. “Right, sorry.” He runs a hand through the side of Martin’s hair and cups the base of his skull, smile melting into a frown. “You’re all… gritty.”
Martin tugs on a half-formed curl at the nape of his neck, finds it salt-coarse and dusted with sand.
"Let's get you cleaned up, alright?" Jon stands and offers Martin a hand. Martin is big and Jon is boney, but it's a nice gesture, and Jon leaves their hands linked as he leads Martin to the bathroom.
It is a small room with tacky pink wall tiles, barely big enough for the toilet and sink and free-standing tub. There is no shower. When they first showed up, the tub had been heavily stained, which neither Jon nor Martin cared to think too much about. Martin has the suspicion that Jon had ended up Knowing anyways, given his obsession with scouring it the following day. Now, it shines. Or, it’s as close to shining as it’ll ever get.
Jon fiddles with the knobs of the bath with one hand, the other still trapped in Martin’s. Martin doesn’t think he could let go, even if he wanted. Eventually, he deems the temperature serviceable and glances back to Martin. Martin’s not certain either of them have a good perception of hot and cold at the moment, but he’s content to trust Jon in this.
“I can,” Jon clears his throat and his eyes flick away, studying the stained grout between the wall tiles, “I can stay, if you’d like?” And then, before Martin can respond, he barrels on, “O-or I can leave, I know it’s all rather a lot right now and you’re vulnerable and it’s difficult to be--what am I saying, of course I should go, it’ll be awkward--”
“Stay,” Martin says, voice rough and sand-garbled, a fair bit lower than his usual timbre, “I’d… like it if, if you stayed. Please.”
Jon searches his face for a long moment before something in him folds and he nods. “Y-yes, right. Of course, Martin.”
They stare at each other for far longer than is comfortable. Jon breaks first, blinking and looking away. “Right, I’ll--Should I give you some privacy to…?” He gestures, uselessly, encompassing Martin’s general everything and the salt ground into every fiber of his being.
“If you could turn around, I guess? I don’t exactly want to be… you know. Alone.” Jon nods and turns on his heel. Those are… Martin’s socks. Okay.
The image sticks with him as he strips, shucks his jumper and shirt, unzips his trousers and steps out of his pants. The socks are striped, pink and white and blue, and the heel hugs the back of Jon’s ankle. They’re hopelessly stretched out and none of this makes any sense.
Martin sighs as he steps into the tub and sinks down into the water, the heat far more intense than it should be, and some of the chill eases. He’s still cold, down deep in his core, but that, too, will thaw in time. Tiny lacerations in his salt-scoured skin sting, briefly, before the small discomfort is forgotten as he slumps against the rim of the tub.
“You can turn around, now,” Martin says, shutting his eyes so he doesn’t have to see Jon’s face as he looks at Martin. He tries to not let the self consciousness rise up, but, well. Sometimes he finds himself still walking on tiptoes.
There’s a slow rustle and drag before Jon lets out his own sigh, ankles giving an ominous pop! in the quiet of the bathroom.
“Jon,” Martin chides.
Silence stretches longer and longer, delicate like candy floss being spooled out, and finally Martin feels brave enough to open his eyes. Jon’s sat against the opposite wall, facing Martin, but his eyes are on his hands, tracing nonsense patterns against the skin of his thumb.
The thing is Martin hates the silence.
“Tell me about your walk?” Jon startles, eyes dark and wide, doe-like. He then flushes and averts his gaze, nails digging half-moons into the heel of his palm.
“W-well, um. It was cold, I suppose?” he offers. Martin hums encouragingly, sinks a little lower in the water to start scrubbing at his arms with a knob of soap kept on the tub’s rim. “Muddy, too. I, ah, slipped. You know how I am.” Far too much enthusiasm crammed into a frame too small to hold it all, which in turn leads to impatience, impulsiveness, and a general sort of frustration at his body’s limitations. Martin makes the appropriate sympathetic noises. “Thought I’d just walk along the main road for a bit. I didn’t want to get too far, but then I saw a wildlife trail and, well, got distracted.” Jon hums, lost in thought. “Oh! I met some goats.”
Martin glances up, takes in Jon’s small smile quirked down at his hands which hang loosely between his knees. “Not cows?”
“Goats,” Jon confirms. “You would’ve loved them; shaggy, great curling horns, very soft noses. They were Cashmere, I think. Most didn’t seem to care the slightest bit about me, but a few came up. Nibbled my sleeves. There was also a llama, but it was laying down a ways off, so I couldn’t get a good look at it.”
“A llama?” Martin prompts, working at the salt and grit between his fingers and toes.
“Make good guard animals, apparently.”
“I didn’t know you knew so much about livestock.”
A short cough. “Well…”
Martin doesn’t bother scolding him. Jon’s told him before that the Knowing is difficult to control, but he’s trying, and that’s really all that matters. Besides, as far as knowledge gained from a terrible, all-seeing eye goes, herding practices seem fairly benign.
Instead, Martin turns his attention to his legs and belly. It really should be more awkward than it is, cleaning himself off while Jon sits so close by, but it’s all just rather nice. The closeness without the need for performance or the pressure to impress. They’re just… being, existing in the same room. It feels quietly intimate, and some long muted part of Martin gives a distant thrill.
“You said you slipped?”
Jon sighs. “The trail was steep, the grass was slick, and I didn’t see the foxhole until it was too late.”
Martin straightens. When he’d said slipped, he hadn’t thought… “God, Jon, are you okay? Is anything twisted? Broken?”
“If anything was, I’m sure it’s healed by now,” Jon says, which. Right. Now that Martin’s looking, he thinks he can spot a smudge of dirt on Jon’s cheekbone, and his hair is more out of order than a blustery day would warrant.
“I’m so sorry, Jon,” Martin says, voice small and the cold in his bones seems to expand, frost snaking from the marrow. “I didn’t… I was so, so caught up in the Lonely and I wasn’t… Even when you told me, I didn’t--” Selfish boy, says his mum’s voice again, memory layered upon memory.
“Oh, hey, no, Martin. It’s alright. I’m alright. I’m just worried about you, okay?”
It doesn’t feel okay, but. “I’m still sorry.”
“You’re forgiven, despite there being nothing to forgive.” Jon sounds so stupidly sincere, in that way he has since he woke up after the Unknowing, and Martin doesn’t know what to do with that.
And then the silence falls over them again. It’s fine, though, all that’s left now is Martin’s hair and then they can move past this. He’ll make them some tea. It’ll all be fine.
Except, as Martin shifts and reaches for his hair, the movement pulls on a gouge that had been lost amongst all the other aches and pains. It arcs across one side of his ribs, shallow yet long. Martin hisses and drops his arms with a splash and thinks, that if he weren’t exhausted from earlier, he’d really like to cry.
“Martin? Are you--What’s wrong?”
“I’m fine, it’s just,” he gestures helplessly and then Jon is there, kneeling next to him and stretching out a hand. He stops just shy of touching, then curls his fingers back.
“Let me see?” he murmurs. Martin does not think about how very naked he is right now, and nods.
Jon’s touch is gentle and cool as his fingers slide along Martin’s wet skin. Martin looks away, tries not to shift as Jon examines the wound.
Finally, he sits back, fingers still splayed against Martin’s side, perilously close to what one of his exes generously referred to as a love handle. Martin forces himself not to squirm. “You’ll be okay, it’s all very superficial,” Jon says and Martin relaxes, marginally. “I’m sure it’s rather painful, though.”
“A bit,” Martin says to the wall, then huffs a humorless laugh. “Looks like I’m destined to have dirty hair until it’s healed, then.”
“I could help.” Martin’s head snaps back to Jon. His eyes are twin pools of night, guileless and Christ, when had he gotten so close? “If you like.”
“Ah, um,” Martin stammers, heat rising along his neck and cheeks. If nothing else, this has certainly chased away the Lonely. For now. “Sure?”
“You’re certain?” Jon himself is a little red.
“Yes? Yes. I’m, um. Yes.”
“Okay.” And just like that, Jon goes to kneel behind Martin.
The thing is. The thing is that they don’t do this. Yes, they’ve kissed and yes, they’ve shared the bed every night since their second night and yes, they cook and laugh and talk together and it’s all very domestic. But they’ve never done something like this, without clothes or, or, or…
Martin’s heard the office gossip. He and Jon haven’t talked about it, because they’re Martin and Jon, but they really need to soon. Martin craves this kind of physical intimacy, doesn’t particularly care about the sex, but Jon’s never given any indication--
Jon’s hand brushes Martin’s hair, tentative. “Are you okay with this?” Martin asks, and the hand stills. “I don’t--I want you to be comfortable, Jon. I need to know you’re not, I dunno, forcing yourself to do something you don’t want.”
Jon leans around Martin, hand braced on the rim of the tub. The sleeve of his jumper is shoved up to his elbow, scars on display and pale against the brown of his skin. Martin shifts to make room and eye contact and Jon’s voice is earnest when he says, “I want to, Martin. I’d like to help.”
Jon caresses Martin’s cheek, just the tip of a single finger, then shifts back to kneeling behind him. He combs through Martin’s hair with his fingers. Martin can’t help the way his eyes slide shut.
For a long time, that’s all there is. Just careful hands buried in his hair, nails scraping languid lines along his scalp. Each pass sends goosebumps shivering up the back of his neck. It’s been--well, ages since someone last did something like this for him.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Jon asks, eventually. He pauses his ministrations to snag a plastic cup that’s been lurking around the bath’s edge, as well as the shampoo and conditioner. He presses at Martin’s shoulder, encouraging him to sink lower in the water, knees breaching the surface like sloping islands. Martin opens his eyes and tilts his head back to look at Jon, who leans forward to fill the cup with bathwater. Martin wrinkles his nose.
“Don’t use--oh, whatever. Talk about what?”
“Before,” Jon says simply. “Close your eyes.”
Martin does, and feels Jon’s hand cup his face, preventing water from running into his eyes. It’s warm and ticklish and Jon repeats the motion several times.
“I doubt that.”
“It really is.”
“Humor me, then?” There’s the snap of a cap, the wet, gooey sound of shampoo being squeezed from its bottle. “You don’t have to.”
Martin sighs, opens his eyes. Jon frowns down at him, but doesn’t comment, just lathers up the shampoo and starts to work it through Martin’s hair. “No, you’re right. We should try to figure out what to do next time it happens.”
“And help you feel better.” Martin scoffs. “I’m serious, Martin. Talking helps.”
“That’s rich, coming from you.”
“I know.” Then, quieter, “I know.” Jon lets it drop, redoubling his efforts with Martin’s hair.
Concentration sits heavy in every line of Jon’s face as he combs shampoo through, fingers breaking up and splitting individual curls. Jon’s hair is less curly and more wavy, with some very shy curls that lurk on the underside, so Martin will forgive his lack of proper technique. He shifts to massaging circles into Martin’s scalp, easing the headache he hadn’t noticed building.
“There was a mug,” Martin says. Jon’s hands still, then resume. “It had geese on it, I think. Or, it used to. There was only one left, right at the front of the ‘V.’ Leading no-one towards nothing.”
“Geese mate for life, you know that? At least Canada geese. I don’t know about the others, like snow geese, or whatever.” You pick up weird things when you want to be a poet; odd bits of imagery that linger and punchy facts to use as metaphors. A lone goose, for example, cut off from its flock, mate shot dead by hunters. “There’s nothing sadder than a goose on its own.”
Jon fills the cup, rinses the shampoo from Martin’s hair. He pets through it, smoothing his hands down either side of Martin’s neck to rest on his shoulders.
“It could’ve been going home,” Jon says at last, thumbs working useless little circles into Martin’s skin that feel rather nice. “Its mate could be waiting for it.”
Horrifyingly, Martin feels tears well up in his eyes. Not as exhausted as he’d thought, then. “At, at their nest. With their babies.” His voice is strained.
“Yes. A half dozen goslings tottering about, honking at their mother and making demands, waiting for him to come back.”
Martin doesn’t respond and Jon picks up the conditioner. He’s careful to work it into the end of each mangled curl.
“And what about later?” Jon asks. “When I… When I held your hand.”
Oddly enough, this is easier than the mug. “It wanted me back,” Martin says with a shrug. That makes the Lonely sound like a jealous ex, rather than an unholy fear entity, bent on finishing a meal. “You almost had me and It… I think It was desperate? Like Its hold on me is getting weaker, so this was one last attempt to grab onto me. Finish, um, what Peter started. It even brought friends.”
Completely flat, Jon echoes, “Friends.”
“Yeah. You know, I have a really hard time separating the Lonely from the Vast and Buried? Like, they share so much of the same imagery.”
Jon is quiet for a long time and Martin feels that maybe he should’ve phrased all this a bit more delicately.
“Fingers of a hand,” Jon says. Martin hums, questioning. “The fears, they’re like fingers of a hand, distinct but connected. Gerry said they were like colors.”
He’s heard the color metaphor before. “Still. After a certain point, it’s like, ‘Well, one of us has to go home and change.’”
Jon laughs, picks up the cup again. Martin closes his eyes without prompting and then he’s left warm and mostly clean, so long as he doesn’t think too hard about washing his hair with his own bathwater.
Jon runs his fingers through Martin’s hair one last time, then cups his face and presses a kiss to the crown of his head. “I’m glad you came back home.” The words are whispered directly into Martin’s skin.
Martin smiles, tries not to let it get self deprecating. “ You pulled me out.” Again.
“Yes, well,” Jon stands with a groan. His knees pop. “You took my hand. I’ll fetch a towel, okay?”
“Sure.” Warm and loose and surprisingly content, Martin’s not so worried about losing sight of Jon. Instead, he listens to his heavy footsteps and the sound of him shuffling things about in the linen closet and the slam of the door as he finds what he’s after.
It’s hard to feel Lonely when he’s been treated so tenderly, over and over again.
Jon returns holding a well-worn towel that Martin washed just a few days ago in this very tub and turns his eyes to the ceiling as Martin steps out from the bath. In a few short moments, Martin’s bundled up in old, scratchy terry cloth.
“Thank you, Jon,” he says, shuffling his feet. The tile is cold.
“Of course, Martin. Clothes?” Martin nods and they walk to the bedroom together. Jon waits while he pulls on a new jumper and loose pyjama bottoms, forgoing his boxers entirely. The fishy smell of the ocean is fading, but Martin doesn’t want to stay here. The Lonely may be gone for now, but to linger feels like tempting fate, like waving blood-speckled hands in front of a wolf’s nose and expecting it to not bite.
“Couch,” Martin says, and shepherds Jon from the room. Jon steps on the pesky board; Martin does not.
There’s no fire in the hearth, no coals to watch flicker, but that’s fine, because the couch looks inviting and cozy as Jon curls up against one of its arms. Martin crowds in close, rests his head against Jon’s narrow chest, lays between Jon’s spread legs.
Jon cradles the back of Martin’s skull and his pruney fingers make their way back into his hair.
“Your hair really is very soft,” Jon says, fondness and wonderment quiet in his voice.
“It’s called conditioner and regular haircuts,” Martin says, words muffled by the fabric of Jon’s jumper. “You should try it sometime.”
Jon huffs a laugh, tugs on the back of his hair. “Yes, yes, alright.”
Martin smiles and breathes. He knows there’s still frost that rimes his bones, waiting for the warmth to fade to spread its spindly fingers, but for now there is no scent of brine, no sound of crashing waves, just the ebb and flow of their breath in tandem with each other.