If asked, Martin would say that he became the shadow director of the Magnus Institute by accident.
But nobody ever asked, and nobody ever cared, and it was in this way that Martin stopped lying to himself. He stopped making excuses for his behavior. He stopped internally justifying his actions every time he did something that might be a little amoral. He stopped caring very much at all.
To put it in a poetic way, it was through isolation and complete administrative power that Martin broke free of his chains. Unshackled from social propriety, free from outside expectations and peer pressure, Martin flourished into the man who he was truly meant to be. An anarchist. A rebel. A leader of man.
So, because nobody ever asked, Martin could admit it to himself: Martin stole leadership of the Magnus Institute out from under Peter’s nose, and in this way became its dictator.
Jon had always been the hero of this story.
Like, look at him. He was courageous and stubborn and smart. He went to Oxford. Only naturally heroic and special people went to Oxford. He was confident and assertive and was unafraid to state his opinion. He was smart, incredibly smart, intimidatingly smart. In short, he was absolutely everything that Martin wasn’t.
Martin was a side character. The J Alfred Prufrock: politic, cautious, glad to be of use, and at times the fool. Maybe mostly the fool: lately, Martin had been thinking of King Lear, and how the fool disappeared off stage as the play reached its climax, and nobody ever seemed to notice. Whatever happened to the fool? Where did he go? Was he happier, far away from the tragedy and drama of the nobility? Martin liked to think so.
Or maybe he was Guildenstern: dead, offscreen. Always ridiculed, the butt of every joke, Hamlet’s old friend by name but far in practice from the gay icon Horatio. Nothing but a pawn in the games of the nobility, tricked into his nameless and mentionless death. But even Guildenstern had more friends than Martin did. At least he has Rosencrantz. Martin didn’t have anybody.
It was easy to disappear into the background. Peter was teaching him, when Peter bothered to show up to work. Which wasn’t really very frequently at all, actually: he popped into the office about once a week, read the one page briefing Martin gave him in big letters in comic sans to make it more readable for him, talked about the newest anime he had spent the last week binging, randomly chose some people to murder, and then taught Martin how to melt into the wallpaper before fucking off again. Martin had assumed at first that he was just working remotely, except it seemed that Peter just thought that the computer was a kind of complex anime machine. He knew how to input his credit card into the Crunchyroll subscription service and how to buy figurines of big breasted women, but that was about it. He had mentioned something offhandedly about ‘trawling the incel forums’, so he clearly did some work for his other job, but Martin tried not to think about that.
Disappearing into the Lonely was easy (Peter explained). Just really, really wish you weren’t in the room. Feel a sense of shame at being looked at. Feel disgusting and unsuitable to take up any space. Wish to god that you could just unobtrusively leave the room. And then...do so. Think quiet, small, mouse thoughts, and never think about anybody besides yourself.
Peter told Martin he was a natural.
“Remember, Martin,” Peter had said. “You don’t deserve to talk to anybody. Nobody deserves to talk to you. They don’t want to talk to you, you’re quite boring, and they would have a much nicer time talking to each other than you. Nobody likes you or wants to interact with you. And then, boom! Instant Lonely! Great for dining and dashing.” He gave Martin a supportive thumbs up. “It’s a little different for everybody, so try to find your own groove. I know that cultural aspects can be a big influence. The Japanese hikikomori is the ideal, obviously. What are you, Chinese? Close enough. Think of it as saving face or whatever. This would be easiest if you were Finnish. Every Finnish person is taught to access the Lonely from birth.”
“Can you please look at these expense reports?” Martin had responded.
“Can’t! Have to catch the new episode of Ore no Imōto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai ! But I’m sure you can take care of things here. You’re a very competent man, Martin.”
“Uh. Thanks. I guess.”
Martin was, unfortunately for Peter’s attempts at intersectionality, adopted, and knew nothing about collectivist cultures. But he could imagine it. It really wasn’t so hard, when he just tried to remember middle school.
In middle school, Martin used to try to see how long he could go without talking to anybody. Every minute was spent with his nose deep in a book, ignoring everyone, praying to never be talked to. During lunch he ate by himself. He used to treat it like a game, see how long you could go without looking another human soul in the eyes.
His record had been only two days. Martin had always reached out, in the end. Maybe this time he could finally beat his record.
But the Institute still had to be ran. Peter wasn’t doing it. Martin had access to his email, to his phone, and to his computer. Martin regularly emailed people with what he had to assume were Peter’s requests and they never even followed up with Peter, just Martin. They had been very accommodating ever since Peter had started randomly choosing people to bump off.
It was late at night, during some of Martin’s precious and newly scarce free time as he ate ice cream and watched movies on a flickering television by himself in his lonely flat, that he got the idea. It was from the movie, actually - Peter encouraged watching a lot of movies and TV shows to shift his focus from social relationships to parasocial relationships. It was a childhood favorite, a Dolly Parton movie called 9 to 5. Martin had loved Dolly Parton as a kid. The movie wasn’t entirely a happy memory, since Martin’s mother had accused him of homosexuality when she saw Martin trying to recreate the lassoing sequence, so it was officially Depression Approved.
In the movie, the plucky trio of women ran the entire office and made many pro-worker changes while they kept the boss tied up in rudimentary BDSM gear in his office. Nobody even noticed that the boss was gone. And, well - if Dolly could do it, why couldn’t Martin?
The next day he put up a poster of Dolly Parton with a lasso at her hip at his desk to motivate him and give him strength. Then he logged into Peter’s email account and, experimentally, sent an email to the accountant asking for the invoice reports as if he was Peter.
He got the invoices back in record speed. Way faster than if he had asked him as Martin.
This, quite possibly, was Martin’s greatest idea.
He was the jester, the fool, the nobody. But the jester could impersonate, could change costumes behind the scenes and come back onstage as Cordelia. With nobody the wiser, if he just blended into the background.
Martin haunted the corridors of the Institute like King Hamlet’s Ghost, he spoke with Peter’s mouth as a puppet, and when he submitted the simple language and friendly one page report to Peter it was full of three times the amount of productivity. Most impressively, Martin was able to demonstrate to Peter that he could go beyond invisibility - that he could touch that foreign, foggy country, where everything lay in meaninglessness and solitude. He could only hold it for a couple minutes - half an hour, if he was in the bath - but Peter seemed thrilled at his progress.
“We’ll stop the Extinction in no time, sport,” Peter said, enthusiastically clapping Martin on the back. He was the only one who touched him anymore. “You haven’t even visited the Archivist in the hospital or anything?”
“No. Not once.” He had lingered outside his door, staring longingly through the door window like Inspector Javert in that meme, but he technically hadn’t visited.
“Fantastic! You deserve a bonus.” Peter withdrew his chequebook, as if Martin was selling his soul and happiness for money . As if he would do it for anything other than Jon’s safety, and the slowly shifting sands of a plan. “How much is normal for a bonus?”
“For personal assistants in nonprofits, five hundred thousand pounds is ordinary for a good performance bonus,” Martin said sarcastically. “But I don’t need money, Peter. Just four hundred thousand is fine.”
“You’re so humble! Better make it six hundred thousand.” Peter scrawled an excessive number on the cheque as Martin’s jaw dropped, easily pressing it into Martin’s hand. “Keep up the good work. I must dash, though, I’ve almost convinced this incel kid to shoot up his school. Later!”
Then Peter was gone, fading into the mist, and Martin was left staring at the check in his hand. The check that would have taken care of Martin’s mother for the rest of her life and fund a nice funeral too. The check that could change Martin’s life, just handed off as if it was nothing.
Martin thought: I could take this further.
And nobody stopped him.
So he did.
The first policy decision Martin made was choosing the catering company for the cafeteria.
He hadn’t really expected it to work. It was just, well, Martin hated the cafeteria food. Sodexo sucked, everybody knew it. Even Aramark was better. It was the number one thing for everybody to complain about at lunch. He knew it too: Martin always dipped into the Lonely to eat in the cafeteria, sitting by himself in the corner. Peter had forced Martin to stop taking his lunches at his desk, insisting that you felt loneliest when you were in a room with other people who hated you and were completely unwilling to talk to you rather than if you were actually, literally alone. It wasn’t about the physicality of it, it was about the mindset.
So he ate in the cafeteria. Alone. He felt like a complete fucking loser, but that was nothing new. And he listened in on everyone’s conversations, and heard everything that humans complained about and felt. He heard everything, and nobody even saw him. It made him feel - powerful. And special. And like a complete loser. He felt like an alien studying humanity through a microscope. And what he found was - that humans were boring.
He once listened to a group of middle aged women talk the entire lunch period. He sat right down next to them and listened to them speak, without one of them ever noticing him. And what they talked about what just so banal . TV shows. Restaurants. TV shows. Restaurants. Reality TV. Gossip. Work. TV. Their kids. It was boring as shit.
Of course, this was what coworkers talked about. Martin knew it, he had worked jobs his entire life. But when he wasn’t participating, when he wasn’t just happy to be included, he recognized how dull and stupid it was. Didn’t they ever talk about anything that wasn’t completely banal? It made him want to tear his hair out.
Everyone was the same. Their dates, their divorces, their kids, their grants. Dull, dull, dull. Martin felt overwhelming nostalgia for the Archives: say what you like about his coworkers there, they never talked about boring shit.
Anyway. Martin still liked helping people. And he couldn’t help but notice that nobody liked the food. He’d be lying if he said that he didn’t mostly want different food for himself, though.
So...a vote here. An email there. And suddenly they had a new chef, a new caterer. And the food was so much better. Everybody noticed. Everybody was happy.
And nobody caught Martin. He got away with it. Peter didn’t notice.
Then he started hearing women talk about how unfair the dress code was. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could just dress casually? Their shoes were always killing them. And, well, Martin liked helping people.
So he drafted up a quick email and sent it to every employee. Starting now, Peter Lukas was relaxing the dress code. Feel free to come in just t-shirts and jeans, guys!
And people did. Martin really appreciated how all the men were suddenly wearing much tighter shirts. And Peter didn’t notice, or if he did then he didn’t care.
It was important that Martin keep up the act impeccably. He put forth his full effort into paying tribute to his new god (which just felt weird and kind of culty), and always exceeded Peter’s expectations. Peter wasn’t one for micromanaging at the best of times, and Martin’s progress in the only thing he cared about meant that he didn’t pay any attention to the Institute.
Martin took his plans one step further.
He balanced the books. He increased his own wage, quite significantly. He had the Institute foot the bill for Jon’s hospital stay and had them move him into a private room. He instilled flex scheduling, so people could come in when they wanted. He had workmen address the creaky Archive doors, the flashlight that was always going in and out, and finally get rid of the roaches. He spruced up the break rooms, instilling free donuts every Friday and free croissants every Monday for all employees. What about employee appreciation weeks? He approved every medical leave request indiscriminately, as well as every PTO one. Martin was of the personal opinion that everybody should get dental on their employee health insurance plan, so dental they got.
Nobody ever knew. Nobody ever noticed. But Martin knew: he knew that he was improving people’s lives. It made him feel good. It was the only thing that made him feel good.
Then he ran into Melanie.
Literally. He literally ran into Melanie. He was just invisible, not intangible, and the shock of running face first into her startled him back into visibility.
She didn’t look too good. She was taking advantage of the new dress code...okay, she hadn’t followed the dress code since Elias did that to her...and was wearing nothing more than a ripped tank top, ripped shorts, and an ankle-length coat that she kept tightly wrapped around herself that bulged in strange places.
“Watch where you’re fucking going, shitfucker - Martin?”
Martin could see the recognition slide into her eyes, when he popped back into reality. Martin flushed, embarrassed. He knew he looked different - he was wearing a suit, for one, his hair neatly combed and cleanly shaved - but he still felt inherently dirty and unhygienic. It felt as if he hadn’t showered for weeks, like he was covered in teenage acne, like he was hip deep in the way he felt when he was seventeen and desperate never to be acknowledged in public. Her eyes skidded over him, as if they didn’t want to see him, but eventually they focused and locked in on him, like nails pinning him down.
“Melanie,” Martin croaked, feeling strange and out of place. When’s the last time he spoke to somebody who wasn’t Peter? It was while Jon was still alive - awake, while Jon was still awake. “Sorry, should have watched where I was going…”
“Where have you fucking been?” Melanie yelled at him, and Martin instinctively cowered. “You ditch us to go sick Lukas’ dick? It’s been nothing but me and Basira in those creepy ass Archives, you arse!”
“But they aren’t dark anymore,” Martin reminded her, pathetically hopeful. “The...the flickering light was fixed?”
Melanie stared at him blankly. “What are you talking about?”
“...never mind.” Martin found himself slipping back, retreating into the cold. “Uh, I have to go give this paperwork to the mailroom. See you later.”
“God, whatever. You’re a creepy motherfucker now, you know that?” Melanie pushed him aside, knocking him into the wall, and continued her rampage down the innocent hallway. “Get lost, Blackwood.”
Martin watched her go, shoulder smarting, and thought - someone needed an anger management seminar.
It wasn’t until he dropped off the files and stared longingly at Dolly’s happy face as she wrangled steers that Martin realized it. He could put her in an anger management seminar. It would help her, wouldn’t it?
He didn’t do it because Melanie had been incredibly rude and ungrateful and mean when he had only ever tried to be nice to her. Martin had never so much as said an unkind word to her. What Elias had done to her - it had been inexcusable.
What Elias had done to the both of them. And, you know, when Elias did it to him , it hadn’t made him a dick.
Not that it was a competition! Trauma wasn’t a competition or anything. Everybody reacted to trauma in different ways. It was just that...well, Martin hadn’t even told anybody. Nobody knew what Elias had done to him. What Peter was doing to him now. Maybe he was...stronger than her.
Well, helping her was the least he could do. So Martin sent a few emails to HR from Peter’s email account, and the next week every employee in the Institute was required to attend a mandatory six hour anger management seminar. They even brought in a wellness coach to teach all of the employees meditation and mindfulness. Martin had thought that she was quite good. He had dropped in and listened, although actually participating in mindfulness would have ruined all of his hard work.
Every employee seemed...unspeakably bored and frustrated at having to be there. He could see Melanie in the crowd, grinding her teeth. Well, then! Hopefully she would learn something!
Martin sat at his desk, staring at Dolly’s pearly whites. He dialed the number to Jon’s hospital before hanging up before someone even picked up the line. He only knew his condition from Georgie’s weekly texts, every Sunday like clockwork. He never responded, but she didn’t seem to care. She kept sending them. Legally dead, but mentally alive. Apparently, he was a miracle of modern science.
She had noticed the transfer to a private room. She had asked if it was him. Martin didn’t respond to that either, even if he wanted to. He was getting the best care Lukas money could buy, and that was good enough.
Martin wondered if he was even a character in this play at all. Maybe he was a stagehand, an assistant director, dressed in all black and moving things and items around silently, meant not to be noticed. He had read something ages ago, about ninjas. About how they dressed in all black because they’re meant to be surprising when they jump out of the shadows and stab you. It’s not about being literally unnoticeable, literally invisible. It’s about being furniture, something so familiar that your eyes just slide right along past it.
It felt stupid, to stalk the hallways of the workplace that he ruled, pretending to be a ninja like a fucking four year old. But Martin had been feeling very young lately, and very old at the same time. He had been feeling like a great deal of things, almost everything that wasn’t himself.
He hadn’t been writing, fiction or poetry. But he read a lot. He read plays. And he found himself paying closer attention to the role of the villain than he used to.
Martin was feeling pretty proud of himself, until the Flesh attacked.
It wasn’t as if he had grown distant from mortality. Peter kept on insisting that zapping employees into the Lonely was the only way to maintain order, and eventually Martin had given up and just started sliding him the names of employees who he knew were white supremacists. Nobody would miss them anyway.
But then the Flesh attacked the Archives, and Melanie had fought every wriggling arm off with a hunting knife the size of her forearm, and Basira huddled in her sniper’s nest in the eaves of the roof picking them off, and of course Martin ran off and hid because that was what Martin did. It was the longest he had ever stayed in the full Lonely, three whole hours. He haunted foggy corridors, desolate and cold, numb and frozen still. When he came out it was all over: dead, disembodied arms littered the corridors, and Melanie was torching them all with a steadfast expression.
That was Martin and Peter’s first fight. Martin wanted more protection for the assistants. Peter didn’t care what happened to the assistants, since all they needed was the Archivist. Martin disagreed . Very strongly .
“What do you care?” Peter had said. He never raised his voice or yelled. He just threatened with a deft hand. “It’s not like you’re one of them. You know they hate you, and they’d spit on your corpse if they bothered to notice it. What’s got you all up in a twist over keeping them safe?”
“I’m the only one who can!” Martin had yelled. “What’s the point of all of this power if I can’t do anything with it?”
Peter had just stared at him, blinking slowly. “Isn’t the point of power just...to, you know, have it? It’s like money. The point’s just to watch the little numbers in your bank account go up.”
Was this what Jon had felt? Was this why Jon had sliced away his humanity, strip by strip?
Because Martin did understand now. Bad shit happened. They lived in a dangerous world, where one day you could be an ordinary person just living your life, and the next day you were being slowly eaten alive by thousands of bugs. Humans were powerless.
The point of fairy tales was to teach, and to learn. There was always a way to win. If you did the right thing, if you were virtuous and kind and always helped old women by the side of the roads and never looked upon your sleeping lover in the dark, then you could win the game and get the prize. Martin always thought that he could survive a fairy tale and get the prince, because he had read them all and he knew precisely how to behave.
The Statements were fairy tales in their own right. Martin didn’t feel as hollowed out and scared reading them as he used to be. Sometimes he even read them for...fun. It helped if he let himself forget that they were real, if he just wrapped himself up in the story. He viewed them like fairy tales: what could he learn? What were the tips and tricks he needed to win and survive and emerge triumphant with his prince at his side?
Sometimes it felt as if there was a rhyme and a reason: those manipulated by the Web tended to be weak willed, those preyed upon by the Vast tended to be scared of heights. It seemed easiest to just not have any phobias. Fair - Martin didn’t really have any common phobias. The girl who had survived the underground train car and the Buried was promising - had she survived because she was brave? What about the man who unclogged Nikola’s drain - he had won because he was brave too, right? He would have gotten out of that one if he just hadn’t gone back .
You couldn’t avoid the Entities. They just happened to you, callous and inhuman and cruel, like cancer or car wrecks or sackings. It seemed like those who were most likely to survive the Entities were the ones who were brave, good, who shone with a light all of their own - people like Jon. Not people like Martin. Martin wasn’t very brave at all.
But there was another way to survive. One way that always worked. One way to climb your way to the top and be the one who hurt, instead of the one who was hurt.
Power. Sacrificing to your god. Losing your humanity. You could survive like that, and be free.
Martin, of course, wanted to get out of this thing with his soul intact. But more than anything he wanted to protect Jon. Jon had spent years protecting him, keeping him safe, and now it was his turn. If he couldn’t be the hero of the play - well, maybe he could be the hero of his own story. Maybe he could be Jon’s hero. He wanted to protect what friends he had left, and wanted to preserve their lives.
He would have thought that it was hard. But it was easy. Easy to manipulate, easy to work your way into those structures of power. Martin had barely had to sell anything besides his desire to wake up the next day. And really, in the grand scheme of things, that wasn’t worth very much at all.
They weren’t safe. Martin commanded the Institute, but they still weren’t safe from the other Entities. Martin needed to become stronger, needed to become even more proficient in the Lonely than Peter Lukas. Peter had been born into it, bred into it, trained since birth. Martin was a low class, impoverished high school dropout who had lied his way into the research assistant job and had lied his way through his personal secretary job and had lied his arse off into this job as the Director of the institute. He needed to be stronger, so he could protect everyone. And if he had to manipulate them all to do it - well, they could thank him later.
If he could just play this game right, then he could get the guy. And maybe they really would all live happily ever after.
Yeah. No more Mr. Nice Martin. Time...to be mean .
As it turns out, in Elias’ old desk he had kept a legal pad with fifty straight pages of passive aggressive ways to make working at the Magnus Institute a living hell. Martin read it, retched, and took copious notes.
Time to start small. Martin sent an email to HR as Peter, and a week later every employee was now forced to attend an eight hour seminar on Micro-Aggressions. Perfect. Martin was getting really sick of all of the homophobia in the conversations he would listen in on.
Everybody really, really hated the seminars. But maybe, if they didn’t want seminars , then they shouldn’t work this stupid and obviously evil job. They could still leave! Martin and the Assistants couldn’t! They deserved this.
He instilled a new policy where each team had to do a staff meeting every day, and arranged the staff meetings so everyone in the staff meetings hated each other. It was easy, when you listened in on everyone’s lives as a silent observer since the first day you had worked there and knew exactly who hated who. Next, Martin quintupled the amount of paperwork and reporting that everyone had to do. He drowned everyone under bureaucracy.
Raffles, where a fake person always won. Employee recognition awards, where the one gossip everyone hated always won and got that free spa day. Taco truck comes around from noon to one, guys - oh, no, is there a mandatory Health and Safety seminar from noon to one? Whoops! Someone had really messed up the planning there.
Potlucks. Potlucks every week. Martin sent around an email to each department with everyone’s birthdays, making subtle nudges about how it was company policy to celebrate everyone’s birthdays by signing a card and singing a song. Far more adults hated birthdays than enjoyed them, and it mortified three fourths of the employees. He subtly poked holes in the pipes above everyone’s desk, and lowered everyone’s chairs, so something was always dripping and you were always banging your knees. Heavy curtains went over every window and every plant was removed, so there was no natural light and no greenery.
Oh, the best part - Martin made some revisions to IT. Budget cuts, you know. Every computer now worked 40% slower, and one out of every four times you would try to log into your email it would lock you out. Within four short months, the Magnus Institute was the most intolerable place to work anybody had ever seen.
Everyone was miserable, almost as miserable as Martin was. The cafeteria conversations were now depressed. Every smile at every potluck was pained. Everybody was subtly, quietly, impossibly miserable. Nobody had gotten any raises that they wanted in months. Nobody ever received recognition for their hard work anymore. Everybody was afraid to speak up, because Peter was still disappearing people. And once a week Martin sent around an email, reminding everybody that a positive attitude was an essential part of Magnus Institute company culture. And that if you thought your neighbor had a negative attitude, you should let your supervisor know. It would reflect well on you!
That was the final stroke. That was the master move. Because now everyone was paranoid - paranoid over how long their bathroom breaks are, paranoid that they weren’t smiling enough or acting happy enough, paranoid that someone out there had heard their complaints. Calls flooded into the tipline, selling out their cubicle mate to guarantee safety the next time there was a disappearance. Decade long friendships were broken in an instant for even just the illusion of safety.
And nobody ever accused Martin of doing it. Nobody even cared . Now the entire Institute felt how Martin felt every day - now everybody hurt how Martin hurt. Everybody was miserable and lonely. Martin most of all.
The deal was clinched when Martin found Peter chatting up an exhausted looking secretary, clearly looking around for Martin. Martin melted out of the Lonely behind him, tapping him on the shoulder, and even enjoyed a little the way Peter jumped a foot in the air and spun around.
“You wanted to see me?” Martin asked, fully aware of how flat and dead his voice was.
“Martin! Lad!” Peter readjusted his cap, huffing slightly. “Where did you come from?”
Martin shot him a look that read very clearly how dumb of a question that was. Peter flushed, sticking his hands in his coat pockets. He was very easily manipulated, actually. It was harder pretending to be him than it was getting him to do what Martin wanted, and it wasn’t very hard to log into his email.
“Right. Your progress is...truly stunning, Martin. Great work. Would you like a bonus -”
“I’ll deposit it into my account from yours,” Martin said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Great! Wow, so on top of things.” Peter stared at Martin curiously, eyes going just a little distant, sizing him up with more than one sense. “Well. You’ve done a great job with the place. It reminds me of Honnōji Academy! You know, from Kill la Kill? It’s this show about -”
“I’ve seen Kill La Kill,” Martin said flatly.
“Oh. Really?” Peter perked up. “Maybe we can watch it together sometime -”
“I’m really busy with the expense reports, sorry.”
“Oh. That’s fine.” Both of them basked in the sensation of interpersonal alienation. It felt terrible, but also great. “Well. I thought I ought to let you know that your boy’s waking up. Those girls are with him...what are their names, the Muslim one and the really hot one…”
“Basira and Georgie,” Martin said automatically, before his comment fully registered. “Wait, Jon’s awake?”
There it was - the trap. Peter’s eyes gleamed with a dull light, as if he had finally found a fish to snare. “Sure is. Why don’t you go ahead and take the day to go visit him, eh? I’m sure he’ll love to hear from you.”
Martin sighed - a perfect picture of a disaffected assistant tired of Peter’s silly whims. “Peter, you know the invoices are due today. I can’t waste my time driving all the way to the hospital when I’m needed here.”
Peter’s grin widened a fraction. “Next week, then? Once the envoys are in?”
“Then I have to approve Dr. Clanton’s grant proposal,” Martin lightly scolded. “I’m going to go back to work, text me if you need me.”
“Work hard, Martin!” Peter said cheerfully, waving him off. “Remember to give yourself another raise!”
“If you say so.” Martin disappeared back into the Lonely without saying goodbye, which was, of course, how Peter preferred it.
He sat at his desk, staring at Dolly and her perfect smile. He quietly slid out a small photograph from behind the glossy thick page, hiding it under his desk and curling around it with his body, as if he could protect it. It had been taken during Martin’s birthday, at the pub. Martin had always loved low-tech retro things, so it was a polaroid. He had found it slipped behind his headboard at home a few months ago, likely shoved into the cracks by the metaphysical twist that the Not!Sasha had made.
Tim, grinning broadly with pearly white teeth. Sasha, an unfamiliar face, with small glasses and long curly hair, her arm slung over Tim’s shoulder. Jon, huddled in the corner, caught in the moment of his blinking, with both eyes closed. Martin sandwiched between all of them, laughing nervously. They were all holding ice cream cones, dripping onto their hands. An employee had taken the picture. It was the most precious thing Martin had.
He was doing it for them. He was doing all of this for them. Making the living miserable for the dead - wasn’t that stupid? But Tim and Sasha deserved their revenge, as did Daisy, and Martin was going to give it to them. He wasn’t going to let anything bad happen to anybody he cared about ever again.
If that meant staying away from Jon - well, Martin had always loved him best from afar, anyway. This would be nothing new.
Martin could do this. He could be brave like Jon and smart like Jon and heroic like Jon. He could be tricky like Martin and manipulative like Martin and cunning like Martin. Martin would save Jon. Even if Jon couldn’t know.
Martin carefully stashed the photo away, not trusting himself to look at it for another second. He wrote a few scattered notes on his legal pad and carefully moved the money around in the budget away from buying fire suppression systems for the Institute.
A week later he opened up a desk drawer and found a tape recorder inside, whirring away quietly as a spider crawled off the top and into the shadows of the desk. It felt invasive. It felt like someone was pushing their filthy fingers into his mouth, like he was being cracked open. It also felt like the most natural thing in the world.
How many gods did Martin belong to? Was he pulling a Producers style scam with his soul? When he burned in hell, would the gods have to timeshare him like divorced parents?
“You again,” Martin muttered, his voice coarse and creaky. “Don’t I get any privacy?”
The Lonely was nothing but privacy; the Eye was everything but privacy. Two wolves roared within Martin. One never wanted to see anything ever again and wanted to never leave his room. The other wanted to impassively watch the world go by and imbibe knowledge. You...worked for Peter Lukas, Interim Director of the Magnus Institute. Joy.
“I’m not allowed to talk to you,” Martin whispered harshly, and slammed the drawer shut.
But it kept whirring, and Martin was distracted away from his work trying to figure out if it was comforting how he was never quite alone. He tried slipping into the Lonely, but it followed him. How could he ever be truly alone like this? Was true solitude even possible?
But the Archivist was home, and nobody was safe. Martin least of all.
Martin hadn’t been stalking Jon.
He had been engaging in the well-respected activity of reverse stalking someone: where you memorized their schedule as to most effectively avoid them. This should have been easy: Jon hated leaving the Archives, and so long as Martin didn’t step foot into the Archives (which he didn’t have to - he had people for that) then it should have been fine.
The problem was complicated by the fact that Jon had been stalking Martin.
He was constantly roaming the halls, looking for Martin, trying to catch him as he turned a corner or slid out of sight. Jon’s Sight was strongest in the halls of the Institute, and even though Martin had been spending most of his time half into the Lonely for privacy reasons even he couldn’t hide completely.
And...sometimes Martin needed to see him. To make him feel even lonelier. So he would submerge himself completely within the Lonely, and stalk Jon stalking Martin.
Their relationship wasn’t healthy.
It was only this way that Martin realized that Jon had stepped into areas of the main Institute library previously unexplored by him: the self-help section. Apparently the half year spent playing Marco Polo in the still waters of the grave had given him a new lease on life, and Martin watched in complete bafflement as Jon devoured volume after volume.
How to Make Friends and Influence People . Forgive for Good. Embracing Fear . Social Skills Guidebook. Jon devoured them indiscriminately, taking careful notes at each book. He attacked the task with a fervor that was, frankly, terrifying.
Martin was fascinated. Martin was slightly horrified. Was he trying to figure out how to make up with Martin? The one or two times Jon had caught him in person was impossibly awkward, according to design. As flattering as it was, he was tackling the problem the wrong way. Also, it was a little pathetic?
But, with the copious addition of more stalking, Martin realized Jon’s true intention. He watched Jon, in a blatantly uncharacteristic move, pop up in front of Basira as she was trying to research something and give her an extremely long winded and painful speech about friendship. Martin, who remembered the cold look in Basira’s eyes as she sniped the Flesh invaders and how she had begun putting up portraits of Gertrude Robinson around the archives, was not sure that this would work.
Then, even more suicidally, he had tried it with Melanie. Martin had subtly arranged to quarantine Melanie in her own little pen in the basement, making sure to throw in occasional monsters as enrichment, but Jon just went in and tried telling her about friendship, loyalty, and hope . It was ridiculous. It was stupid. It was…
Something Martin would have done, two years ago.
Maybe this was the way of things: Martin becoming Jon, Jon becoming Martin, Basira becoming Gertrude, Melanie becoming Daisy. They were all just trying to fill those holes that the people who were gone had left behind. Sometimes Martin thought that people...bled into each other, that it was impossible to survive a relationship fully intact. There was always a little bit of interchange, a little bit of scarring. Change was inevitable, when you interacted with others.
But Martin couldn’t afford that. He must remain himself, he had to grasp his soul with a tight fist and not let go. He could do bad things and slide faster and faster into the polar waters, but so long as he didn’t lose sight of himself and who he was then he could walk out again with his head held high. That was what the fairy tales said. Martin couldn’t afford to let anyone change him - not Peter, not the assistants, and not Jon.
Intact. Pure. Unchanging. That would be Martin. It had been what he had always admired most in Jon, and it could be Martin now.
At least, Martin thought, staring at him tragically through a door window like Javert in that meme as Jon dramatically re-enacted a statement, he’s lonely too.
“Have you heard the news?”
Martin filed. Martin stapled. Martin made rotas.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. Everyone’s been talking about it.”
Martin assigned mandatory seminars. Martin strategically allowed Artifacts to escape from Artifact Storage. Martin dealt with Peter.
“Come on,” Tim said, leaning on Martin’s desk like he had a thousand times. “Don’t you want to hear about how Jonathan Sims and Daisy Tonner are totally fucking?”
“So he’s not a robot yet,” Tim said triumphantly. He leaned in, pearl white teeth flashing. He switched to Mandarin, like he always did whenever he wanted to share secrets with Martin. Or at least make Martin feel like they were. He was always good at making Martin feel special. Had always been good. “Hannah from accounting said that they’ve been going everywhere together. James from Artifact Storage said that she just sits in his office, not talking, not doing anything - just being together. Diane from the library said that they hold hands .”
Martin’s lips thinned. Tim’s smile grew wider.
“Basira from the Archives said that Daisy’s a Not!Them. Do you think so, Martin? Come on, you can tell ol’ Tim.”
“It’s none of my business,” Martin hissed back, in clunky and rusty Mandarin. He only ever spoke it with Tim. Now that Mum - anyway. His Mum had never been great at it either. “Not anymore.”
“Pretty pathetic how you always fall for the straight guys,” Tim said gleefully. He batted his eyes at Martin, draping himself over his desk. His elbow went through Martin’s computer. “You ever get a crush on me, Martin?”
“I always figured you were carrying a torch for Sasha,” Martin said stiffly. It was romantic, how he never got over her death. It had killed him, of course, but it had also been romantic. “Besides, there’s no way Daisy and Basira never had something going on.”
“Bisexuals exist.” Tim waved a hand through his arm, passing cleanly through. “Well. Not this one.”
“You’re free to leave.” Martin started typing up an email from Peter’s account, barely even paying attention to the contents.
“But I make you feel so lonely!” Tim exclaimed. “Isn’t that worth it?”
Martin’s fingers halted over the keyboard, before slowly going back to typing. “Fine. But stop distracting me.”
“Do you think they’re just lonely?” Tim wondered out loud, picking up a pen and twirling it around as he lay on Martin’s desk, obscuring his vision of all of his important work. “Maybe they’re weak willed cowards, who are so afraid of loneliness that they’re grasping onto each other. Any port in a storm, you know?”
“Can you get off my desk? I need that invoice.” The invoice that was currently poking out of Tim’s foot.
“You wound me so.” Tim held the pen up, clutching it with both hands and holding it above his stomach. He switched back to English. “O happy dagger! This is thy sheath. There rust, and let me die.”
Then he stabbed himself, pen sinking bloodlessly and easily into his stomach, and impaling itself into the cold wood. He rolled his eyes back cartoonishly before closing them, miming gagging noises, and dramatically threw his hands out. Martin at Tim, unamused, even as he cracked an eye open and smiled.
“All the world’s a stage, Martin.”
“You’re mixing up your plays,” Martin said flatly, switching back to English too. “That one’s from a comedy.”
“The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief,” Tim said roguishly. “Don’t you think that your life is a comedy?”
No, it was a tragedy. But that, at least, Martin already knew. “If it’s a comedy then I’m the butt of the joke,” Martin said flatly. “Can you leave me alone? I don’t care about Jon’s romantic life. If he has a girlfriend now, good for him.”
“Sure.” Tim sat up, smiling at him again. Demented, inhuman, and cold. Nothing like Tim. Just like Tim. Martin didn’t know the last time Tim had given him a real smile. Maybe from before Sasha. “Maybe they’re doing it in his office right now. As you sit here. Filing reports. ”
With that parting shot, he faded away, back into whatever loneliness held the dead. And Martin was left sitting at a desk, typing words he wasn’t even bothering to read into a computer, trying not to think about Jon and Daisy , failing.
Martin thought about it.
He thought about it as he fell asleep. He thought about it as he brushed his teeth in the morning. He listened to Mr. Brightside on repeat on his headphones on the way to work, because he hated himself.
It made sense. From how Melanie described Georgie, Martin knew that Jon liked scary women who could snap him like a twig. And Daisy was all malnourished and...well, waif-ey these days, which Martin had heard that straight men found appealing or something. Like the ‘waifus’ or whatever in those anime Peter was always watching. Her cheeks were gaunt, her limbs emancipated, and she spent all her time either doing physical therapy or lying on the couch, exhausted from physical therapy. Jon often lay with her, her head pillowed on his chest, reading together in silence. Martin couldn’t quite make out the title of the book Jon would read so frequently - it was hard to see with the angle of the door window - but he knew that it was another self-help book. Daisy read comic books.
Martin liked comic books. If Jon liked people who liked comic books, Martin was right here. Except he wasn’t, not really. Martin wasn’t anywhere at all.
I just can’t look, Martin thought, lying in his bed at night and staring at the ceiling. It’s killing me. And taking control…
To make matters worse, now Melanie was ‘better’ or something. As if people got better instead of just worse. She spent most of her time crouched in a corner crying hysterically, but he had seen her and Jon talking. Civilly, even. She only carried around five knives these days.
It was only to be expected. None of them really left the Archives anymore, even to go home. It was like a permanent sleepover. No wonder they were all becoming good friends. Martin was willing to bet that if he lived in the Institute, they’d all like him too.
Did Jon and Daisy share a camping cot? Did they spoon in the night, her head pillowed on his chest, holding hands? Did they whisper secrets to each other in the dark? Did they kiss, tenderly? Did they -
But that was fine. Fine! It was good! Martin was practically speedrunning this whole Lonely thing.
The ghost of Tim wouldn’t go away. It didn’t bother him very often, but ever since Jon had woken up he had started seeing it more and more. He was pretty sure it wasn’t really Tim...pretty sure...nothing was impossible. It was probably a grief-induced hallucination. Probably.
It was months before he worked up the urge to ask Peter about it. Tim had been reliably popping up just to tease him about Daisy and Jon...he needed a ship name for them, EyeFlower? EyeHunt? Jaisy?...no, that was dumb...and he was beginning to get worried. Still, it was probably a completely normal thing that happened to every Lonely devotee.
“Ghosts? That’s fucking weird.” Peter scratched his beard, dropping the one page sheet of updates that Martin had given him as if they were too much work. “I see wailing spirits on the open seas all the time, aye. But not...ghosts.” He eyed Martin carefully, as if he was a cut of meat that had grown a particularly interesting culture of mold. “Who are you seeing?”
Martin shrugged, disaffected. He leaned back in his chair, fiddling with a pen lazily. “Tim Stoker. He just mocks me, usually.”
“Think it’s really him?” Peter hummed, tapping his chin. “I suppose the Lonely manifests in different ways for everyone…”
“You mean you don’t know ?” Martin asked, incredulous. “Aren’t you supposed to be the expert?”
Peter laughed, clapping Martin on the shoulder like a proud dad or whatever. Not that Martin would know. “Every person’s experience is unique! I believe that when I was on your stage of development, I found myself speaking incomprehensible Ancient Sumerian for six months. Nobody could understand a word I said. It was terrible! My tutor failed me on all my assignments because he couldn’t read them. Maybe that’ll happen to you.”
“...if I started speaking only Ancient Sumerian, would you fire me?”
“I would never! You’re practically employee of the month!” Peter made a fist and thumped it into an open palm, a cartoon picture of someone who just had the best idea ever. “Actually, go ahead and make yourself employee of the month. Just make sure not to tell anybody.”
“Got it.” Martin sighed. He was beginning to think of himself as the only competent employee in this building. Not even the Archives people did real work anymore. “Is there anything else?”
“I think I’m forgetting something. Definitely keep an eye on the Jaisy situation, that’s hilarious...hm.” Peter thought hard, before snapping his fingers. “That’s right! ‘Elias’ wanted to talk to you.” Why the audible air quotes…? “You should go visit him. He’ll probably bitch at me for hours if you don’t. Man has a way of letting you know he’s upset!” Peter laughed heavily, sketching Martin out. But then he sobered, and pointed a finger at Martin. “Obviously, don’t tell him about anything we’ve been working on. That control freak would just get in the way.”
This, more than anything else Peter had said since ‘by the way the world’s getting destroyed and you’re probably the only person who can do anything about it’, alarmed Martin. “How am I supposed to keep secrets from Elias? I don’t know if you forgot, but he can literally read minds.”
“Not ours!” Peter said cheerfully. “The Lonely’s a thick fog that obfuscates all senses. Keep one foot in the sea and one foot on shore, and you’ll be fine. Tell him hello for me, won’t you?” Then he widened his eyes and tilted his head - an alien trying to imitate a human’s curiosity. “Speaking of which, Martin. I heard that over the course of those three days, statements and recorders began to accumulate in the coffin’s room. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”
I’m not your jailor, Martin. Talk to him if you want, Martin. It would just be a stupid thing to do, Martin. Martin sighed, the picture of aggravation. “Of course I do. You’re the one who’s been moving old statements out of the library into storage, remember?”
“I have ten emails from you sent to different departments saying that you have.”
“Huh.” Peter scratched his beard. “Welp. Bye!”
Then Peter fuzzed out again, Martin carefully tracing his exit into the fog, and he was left alone. He sighed, thunking his forehead on his desk and looking to Dolly’s happy smile for strength.
Working together was a strong word for what he and Peter were doing. They had just struck a deal, that’s all: the protection of the Institute in exchange for Martin’s ‘attention’ and ‘willingness to learn’. But that worm didn’t squirm attractively enough on the hook, and slowly Peter had begun to drip feed him information about the Extinction and how Martin was the only one who could stop it, how Martin needed to save the world.
Martin had hesitated enough for one lifetime. He had been powerless enough for five. If there was anything he could do, if there was any meaning he could squeeze from this situation, then he would take it. Peter appeared...a little...genuine when he said that he was invested in the world not ending. Martin had to trust that.
Martin wasn’t stupid. He knew he was being manipulated. Peter played the idiot, but nobody was a close personal friend of Elias Bouchard without knowing a little about how to puppeteer the lesser mortals.
Gambits on gambits. Idiot drop-out trying to pull the strings of the gods on earth. Martin sighed, pulling up his calendar and clearing his schedule. At least they wouldn’t see him coming.
Mum had always told Martin that he’d end up in prison one day, usually after Martin had just swindled the other kids to give him their lunch or lied his way into another job, but she probably hadn’t expected it to be like this.
According to the visitor log books, Basira had been making frequent stops. It made Martin snort. One guess: he was drip feeding her information so she would stay useless and Jon could shoulder the weight of the world by himself. Martin had a very mean and treacherous little brain, and sometimes it thought things like this: Basira wasn’t nearly as smart or competent as she thought she was.
Not that he was any better, with the stupid way he was lone wolfing it now. Not that Melanie wasn’t also lone wolfing it, and Jon, and Daisy. Entire Precinct Composed of Loose Cannons. Whatever. Martin was willing to bet nobody else was thinking more than a week ahead - or, in Jon’s case, was desperately trying to think a week ahead but was far too ADHD to actually put together a coherent timeline and plot. He was special and immaculate but hopefully when Martin got his old job back he could use his newfound super assistant powers to schedule his entire life to reduce the amount of Jon’s decision making that was inflicted upon the world.
If he could ever get his old job back. If he even wanted to. If Plan C: Bump off Peter came to fruition, and provided Elias waited on his grand escape plan, then it was possible for Martin to install himself as the official director, and then he could make some real changes around here -
Prisons were easy, to be lonely in. They were practically built that way. Martin gently faded himself away, let himself become nothing, let himself become unworthy of taking up any space. The world faded from tan to grayscale, and the fog nipped at his ankles like an old friend. Security’s eyes glazed past him, and the scary looking white men with huge batons and control issues walked straight past him. He was invisible to every employee - just another waste of breath. Part of Martin noted clinically that the employees here were especially susceptible to it. They must be used to seeing people as furniture.
He had worried about even finding Elias, but in the end it was easy. He was a shining light in the fog, beckoning Martin closer and closer. The power shook him, made goosebumps rise on his flesh. It made Martin wonder, for the first time, exactly how powerful Elias really was. When he was a naive idiot just finding out about Elias’ powers, he seemed to be the scariest person in the world, but that was before Martin’s life had exploded into shrapnel and blood. Were there men out there scarier than even Elias now? Was it possible for Martin to be one of them?
When Martin found him, he was lying on his cot, reading an old looking book with a faint smile on his face. He looked terrible, of course - no gelled hair, no skin care creams, stress and filth adding lines onto his face - but he did seem vaguely happy. Almost peaceful. Martin wondered if he dreamed of spreadsheets.
In a fit of idiot daring, Martin walked through the bars and into the cell. It was small and cramped, hardly enough room for two people to move around comfortably, but he leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. Martin took a deep breath, exhaled, and thought of Jon, and gently slid himself half-back into reality.
“You look like shit,” Martin said.
Elias fell off the bed.
Okay. That made the last year worth it alone. Martin wished he had a polaroid to frame this moment. This moment was his patronus moment. No more depression, he had the memory of surprising Elias fuckin’ Bouchard. But he kept his face impassive - easier than expressing emotion, these days - and bored, as Elias bolted upright.
“Good lord,” Elias said. “Pray tell, Martin, when you learned to do that?”
So he couldn’t see into the Lonely. “I doubt you have anything more interesting to do than watch me run your business,” Martin said flatly, all emotion throttled from his voice. “So you tell me.”
Elias sat on his bed, back straight, a slow smile creeping across his lips. “What makes you think I don’t have more important things to watch?”
“You aren’t in the habit of making the same mistake twice.”
Elias laughed lightly. “I’m afraid you’re right. When you’ve lived as long as I have, Martin, you’ll find that means you make very few mistakes.” He eyed Martin speculatively, doubtlessly cataloging what Martin saw every day in the mirror - the limpness of his hair, the bags under his eyes, the weight loss. “Why don’t you come out of there and talk to me fully? You’re hiding, Martin Blackwood.”
“I’m protecting myself.”
“The world we live in isn’t safe, Martin. There is no such thing as protection or safety. People are...animals.” Elias leaned back on his hands, raising an eyebrow at Martin. “So quickly the little engine that could gives up. I guess we all have our breaking points. Yours is just...a little fragile.”
It was difficult to feel angry in the Lonely, to feel hurt or defensive or prideful. So Martin didn’t. It was numbing, a paralytic agent that froze Martin where he stood. “If you’re trying to goad me into stepping into the real world so you can read my mind and learn what Peter’s up to, I won’t. Did you have a more interesting reason for calling me here or can I go now?”
“My, you’re prickly. Another defense mechanism?” Elias leaned forward now, elbows resting on his knees, something sparking in his eyes. “I know Peter better than any human alive. Certainly better than you.” His lip curled slightly. “Working together, are you?. Partners in crime? Peter’s always looking for patsies like that. Naive young men to do his dirty work.”
“That describes you too,” Martin said. God, this was...almost pathetic. It was so transparent. Almost as transparent as Martin, ha ha. Had Elias used to be better than this? Had he used to be scarier? Or was it Martin, now, who was scary? “You…really don’t know what’s going on, do you?”
“If there’s one place my Eyes can see, it’s my own Institute,” Elias said dryly.
“But what you said was wrong,” Martin said, and Elias shut up. “If you could See me, then you’d know the answer. You can’t see inside the Institute at all, can you? It’s fogged.”
It was subtle. Barely noticeable. But Martin, who was so, so good at people, saw it. The way Elias’ hand flexed. As if he wanted a throat under that hand, to choke and squeeze. “Peter has extended his reach quite far inside it,” Elias said grudgingly. “Traitor as always, I suppose. I suppose he’s too stupid to know that I can’t help him if he blocks me -”
“That wasn’t him,” Martin said, not knowing it was true until he said it. “That was me.”
Elias stared at him. Martin didn’t make eye contact, keeping himself adrift and loose. It was easy. It was the easiest thing.
“Martin Blackwood,” Elias said slowly, almost tasting his name. “It’s so rare that I’m wrong about someone. But I was wrong about you. I suppose even I can be manipulated.” He stood up, and Martin didn’t shrank back as he once would have. “But you’ve never been as smart as you thought you were. When you lose yourself inside that endless rolling fog, when you no longer even remember your own name, remember mine. Come crawling back to me, Martin Blackwood. You lonely types always do.”
“I don’t have to take this anymore,” Martin said.
He let himself fade away, retreating into the rolling fog, and he watched with satisfaction as Elias’ gaze skimmed over him. Unseeing, unknowing. Weak.
It wasn’t until Martin was back in his own flat, safe again, that he let himself leave. He found the empty patch, the gate, and stepped through…
...into more fog.
Martin stood in the living room of his flat, looking around, fog nipping at his heels and rolling at his feet. It covered the hardwood like a carpet, fluffy and friendly, always cold. Martin didn’t want this. He wanted to go back, he wanted hot coco and trashy telly.
Out. Get out. Martin took a deep breath and forced the gate open, wider and wider, and stepped through. The fog remained. He was still cold.
Fuck. Martin’s breath picked up, his chest heaving. Fuck. Fuck. Don’t panic. It’s like - it’s like a sweater, too small for you, that you accidentally trap yourself in. Suck in your stomach, think of Jon, his hands, holding Daisy’s, no, no. Think of Jon and his lips. Kissing - fuck!
Distantly, Martin was aware that he was hyperventilating. His head felt light and dizzy, and there were deep and throbbing pains in his chest. He couldn’t leave. Thinking of Jon and the team always pulled him through, but he couldn’t think of Jon without thinking of Daisy, couldn’t think of Melanie without thinking of Jon and then thinking of Daisy, couldn’t think of Tim or Sasha without thinking of deathdeathdeath , couldn’t think of tea and warmth and hugs without remembering that he would never have this, not ever again, because Jon was someplace so distant now, someplace where warmth still lived and love still grew -
This was it. He was lost. He was trapped. His arms pinned to his side, everything pressing in, everything empty and infinite. Mum, he wanted his Mum - fuck, she was gone. Even his Mum was gone. She was in the coldest world now, unreachable and distant, and he could never text her again or call her or hope that maybe one day he could trick her into liking him. There was no possibility of reconciliation, not ever again. No hope. Just this, coldness and fog, forever, for the rest of his life.
Distantly, almost unconsciously, Martin’s hand drifted to his phone. With a shaking hand, he pressed the most recent phone number on his list, arm trembling as the phone rang and rang and rang. What was he kidding, it was the fucking Lonely, calls didn’t go through here. Phones would imply people , and people implied love , and this was a dead world where nothing could bloom or breathe or thrive.
Then the line was picked up, staticky and fuzzed, but with the unmistakable sound of breathing on the other end. Peter. Peter never talked first on the phone. Martin tried to keep his calls to a minimum, actually, they were so awkward -
Martin burst into loud, noisy tears. “Peter!” Martin cried. “I’m stuck, I can’t get out! Help me, please, I can’t die here!”
“Whoah! Slow down! Stop crying, that’s so cringe, dude.” Peter waited patiently until Martin managed to muffle his sobs, feeling shame and embarrassment over calling his boss in the middle of a panic attack. “Calm down. What’s the situation?”
“I went to go see Elias,” Martin said, as clearly and evenly as he could. “I did just like you said, I kept myself half-there. It was...easy, in prison. To be overlooked. Everyone’s...just nothing, in there. But I got home and I couldn’t get back out. Peter, I don’t want to be stuck here. Please get me out.”
“That happened to me when I was a teenager,” Peter said nostalgically. “My boyfriend broke up with me and when I went into the Lonely to sulk, I couldn’t get out! I begged my Pops to help me out, but he said that trapping yourself inside a cold hell dimension builds character and that it was my fault for wanting sex anyway. I was stuck there for, like, four months. What a time that was. Golden, happy days of childhood.”
Martin couldn’t believe this. Okay, he could. He could very much believe that Peter would leave him stranded here to build character. But Martin didn’t have that kind of time, and he had a job to do, and he couldn’t just be stuck here. Anger pushed its way through, furious and burning anger. “And did you fucking appreciate that?” Martin yelled. “Was it kind of traumatizing to have people who promised to help you abandon you to build character ?”
“Yep!” Peter said cheerfully. “But trauma’s good for you, you know.”
“ Peter, please! ”
Then Martin burst into tears again, ugly and embarrassing, and he couldn’t speak anymore. He was filled with anger, but it was looped in on itself. It made him want to tear and destroy everything, but there was only himself, and Martin was left wanting to scratch out his own skin with his fingernails.
Peter was saying something over the line, but Martin couldn’t pay attention. He was swirling, a vortex of anger and fear and hatred and sadness, and it made his eyes burn with a sharp, spiking pain. The fog rose around him, until it was no longer just swirling on the floor but on the walls, and as Martin cried desperately he saw soft, formless shapes began to emerge from the fog.
For a brief, beautiful second Martin thought it was Jon, descending into hell to save him like he had saved Daisy. But Martin wasn’t loved or seen enough for that, and as the figure burst from the fog he saw it resolve into Tim. Tall, hair perfectly gelled, wearing his characteristic flannel with a leather jacket overlaid and heavy boots. He was smiling gently at Martin: welcome, inviting, and cold.
Next to him another figure resolved itself, and for the first time that Martin could remember he saw Sasha. She was tall, with light brown skin and curly brown hair. She was wearing heels and a pantsuit, and waved welcomingly at Martin.
People. Real people, or close enough. His friends. Martin stepped forward, reaching out a hand. Sasha and Tim held hands with each other, their fingers intertwined, and as one they both reached out their hands to him. They wanted him. Somebody wanted him.
Please, Martin thought, or maybe said. Please, help me. Please take me away from here. I need someone. I need you.
Fuzzily, in the distance, Martin saw the shape of his mother. She looked young, as she did when he was a child, before she grew sick. Back when she still loved him. Next to her stood his father, his arm slung around hers. Martin stepped closer, aching for someone who had always been so far away.
Sasha’s lips moved. She was saying something to him, but he couldn’t hear. Please, he wanted to hear. Please, he wanted to know.
“Martin? Lad, listen to me.”
Tim spoke too, but Martin couldn’t hear him. He winked at Martin, warm and inviting, a promise of a happier time. Martin stepped forward, closer and closer, distantly aware of pushing something aside so he could follow him. The pearly white fog was so thick he could no longer make out the shape of his living room, or the sounds of London spread out around him.
“Martin! Stop moving, you idiot kid!”
Something heavy cracked against his cheek, but it was warm. Martin’s head jerked to the side, pain blooming, and in a snap Martin became aware that somebody was touching him. Somebody was in front of him, wearing a stupid turtleneck and a stupid trenchcoat. He was frowning at Martin, both hands on his shoulders, physically pulling him away.
Pulling him away from Tim and Sasha and Mum and Dad and -
“Stop it! Martin, it’s Peter. Listen to my voice. Ground yourself. What do you feel underneath your feet? What do you hear outside? What time is it, what’s the date?”
What did he feel...concrete. Cold, but tough and hard. But his flat was carpeted.
The incongruity, the strangeness, shocked Martin back to himself. The warmth of Peter’s hands on his shoulders pulled him through, and Martin shuddered as the gate whirled past his ears. His ears popped, his eyes refocused, and Martin’s heart began beating again.
It was only then that Martin realized he was half-hanging over the railing of his balcony, almost overbalancing. If he had moved closer just one foot, he would have fallen over the railing, and down the five stories below to the hard pavement beneath. Peter gave him another sharp tug, pulling him more firmly back onto the landing, and Martin whuffed as his butt roughly collided with the cement of his balcony.
What did he hear? The cacophony of London. The time...god, four pm? Date, date...Martin remembered the date, like a cold wash of water. He wanted to throw up. He was still shaking. Peter. How did Peter get here?
“Peter?” Martin said hoarsely, throat cracking. It felt as if he hadn’t spoken in weeks. “What are you doing here?”
“You called me,” Peter said patiently, putting his hands on his hips. “Goodness, lad, you almost did yourself in there. What on earth possessed you to try to take a swan dive off your balcony? You won’t survive that for a few years, minimum. There’s easier ways to test if you’ve become immortal yet.”
Martin opened his mouth, then closed it. Faintly, pathetically, he heard himself say, “I saw Tim, and Sasha. And Mum…”
Peter sighed, as if Martin was his unruly puppy who had piddled on the carpet. He bent down, and for a second Martin thought that Peter was going to give him a hand up, but instead he just patted Martin on the shoulder. “I don’t care about your sadboi hours. Just try not to die while doing them next time, because I’d have a hell of a time trying to replace you. Honestly, Martin, I had been warned that you were a lot of work, but I hadn’t expected it’d be this bad.” He stood up, stepping over Martin’s outstretched legs to slide the balcony door open. But just before he stepped over the threshold he looked backwards at Martin, something that Martin didn’t understand written across his expression. “Call me next time that happens. I’ll get you out. I’m not as incompetent a mentor as my father.”
Then he disappeared into the flat, and likely from reality, and because he was too tired to stand Martin let himself lie down on his balcony and stare at the grey sky. His brian was static and fog, and his chest hurt deeply. He didn’t want to move. Maybe he’d never move again.
This couldn’t happen again. Martin had to be better. He was more than this, than any of this. He wasn’t weak and stupid like everyone thought. Peter wouldn’t bail him out forever. It’s a miracle Peter bailed him out at all, actually.
Why had he come? Peter had dropped the syrupy sweet act months ago, after Martin had grown too entangled in his web to easily leave. His ‘I’m your buddy, your pal, your best friend forever’ act had vanished after Martin had lost all hesitation, after he needed no more coaxing. Martin was all in. He had bet everything he had. Maybe that was something he and Peter had in common.
Why had he come? Well, Martin was pretty hard to replace…
Stupidly, ridiculously, Martin fell asleep, and dreamed of fog and a creature with a thousand eyes, comforting him and making him feel seen.
Sometimes Martin thought that the world was split into two halves: the victim and the victimizer. The predator and the prey, not to get all Hunt or Slaughter. Those at the bottom of the totem pole and those at the top. The assistant and the boss.
The point of power, Martin knew, was to protect yourself from being hurt. The Lonely was great for that. Elias had been right: it protected him. It made him feel safe. So long as he could control it. The point of being marked by the Lonely was that it was you who was throwing people inside. You weren’t the one who was lost. You were found.
“Think of it as fire,” Peter explained the next day. “Except, you know, it’s the opposite. It’s strong, and fierce, and it’ll make you the baddest caveman around. But if you’re not careful with it...it can burn. So just don’t get burned! Cheers!”
Helpful as usual. But the explanation did make a certain amount of sense: don’t swim in the deep end of the pool if the Lifeguard wasn’t on duty. Martin had read a thousand statements of upstart white men who thought themselves geniuses, masters of the arcane, and it destroyed them from the inside out. Martin wasn’t stupid like that. He knew that he was the hand of the Lonely, the vessel for its will. He didn’t think that he could control it. Just...nudge it.
Dabblers thought themselves masters. Masters knew that they knew nothing. Martin needed to be better . He couldn’t afford to fail.
He was terrified of stepping in the Lonely for days, but that tended to make it uncomfortably difficult to avoid Jon. Jon had ramped up his stalking, even more desperate for somebody, anybody. He was strong, but he didn’t know how to use the loneliness he was feeling. Isolation didn’t have to be bad. It could be good. You could shape and form a bad thing into something positive and good, sometimes. That was what self-care was all about.
Not that he ever saw Jon without Daisy these days. But that was none of Martin’s business.
He couldn’t afford fear or weakness. Martin clutched the memory of his conversation with Elias tight to his chest, basking in how good it made him feel. He had finally gotten one up on Elias. No more Mr. Nice Martin. No more Mr. Victim. He was powerful now, and he could defend himself. He could protect. He could strike back.
Which meant that he couldn’t avoid the Lonely for long, even if it made his heart pick up and his palms sweat. He had to master this. Which meant going deeper.
Martin wasn’t a coward. He was braver than anybody. Even if nobody knew, he would know.
So the next time he saw the ghost of Tim - safely on the first floor of the Institute, relaxing on the bench that he used to enjoy sitting on and chatting the day away in life - he wrapped himself in fog and approached him. Tim smiled a little when he approached, widening into a grin that took up just a little too much of his face.
“Where wilt thou lead me?” Tim joked, his grin inhuman. “Speak, I’ll go no further.”
“Mark me,” Martin said sarcastically, pulling the fog tighter around him and bringing Tim into sharper relief. The hallway, the passerby, became distant and faint, and it became Tim who was real instead. “My hour is almost come. When I to sulfurous and tormenting flames must render up myself.”
Tim barked a laugh, crossing his arms and slouching in his seat. “Alas, poor ghost!”
“Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing to what I unfold.” Martin scowled, struggling to recall the rest of the scene. He did have a lot of Hamlet memorized - long nights bussing were boring, and he used to amuse himself by reciting Hamlet under his breath.
“Speak. I am bound to hear.” Tim stood up, extending a hand to Martin. But Martin just stepped back, cautious and afraid, and Tim drew his hand back in. “I don’t suppose you want to hear a tale that will freeze your young blood, buddy. Why are you here? You ran away last time we talked.”
“You call that talking?” Martin asked, voice hoarse. “You tried to kill me.”
Tim frowned, wounded. It really did seem as if he was wounded. It really did seem like Tim. Was it? Tim had used to recite poetry with Martin, banding around lines of Cummings and Frost. They had liked all the same things, had cared about all of the wrong things. Had all of the worst principles. “I didn’t make you try to walk off that balcony. That’s all your fault, Mr. Suicidal.” Martin winced. “Aw, did I hit a nerve? Truth hurts.”
“That’s not true,” Martin said harshly. “I don’t want to die. I have too much to do. I have so much work to do, I can’t leave Jon behind now.”
“Then what about after you win?” Tim asked, arching an eyebrow. “Martin Li Blackwood victorious. He defeats the bad guy, gets the guy. What will you do then?”
Martin’s mouth was dry. “Then...then I can leave this behind me. I can let myself be happy again.”
“You can’t close the door once you open it.” Pain, horrible pain, sparked in Tim’s eyes. “Learn from others’ mistakes, Martin. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do in the fairy tales?”
Pathetic. Always so pathetic. Martin looked away. “Life isn’t a fairytale. It...it
feels like a nightmare, lately. One that you can’t wake up from.”
Tim stepped forward again, and this time Martin didn’t step away. He stepped closer, and closer, until he could reach out and take Martin’s hand. It was large, and tough, and so utterly like Tim’s that it almost could have been his - if it wasn’t for how cold it was.
“Time can be meaningless, can’t it?” Tim whispered, something in his eyes glowing with an unholy light. “A month can feel like a day, and a single day can feel like a month. A second can change the course of a life. Two years ago, Martin. Does it feel like two years? Or is it a lifetime?” He smiled coyly at Martin, laughing at a secret joke that only the two of them shared. “Two lifetimes?”
The fog rose like high tide, enveloping them in a swirling mass of frigid water. Martin held his arms up to cover his face, breaking free of Tim’s grip and bracing himself, and the fog rushed into his nostrils and throat until it choked him. For a second, for two, Martin couldn’t breathe. He was drowning. He was going to be swept away, endlessly into the dark -
The fog receded, banking down until it was nothing more than a foamy carpet. They were in the Archives now, the ghost of Tim standing loyally at Martin’s side, looking over the familiar room. But no - there was something unfamiliar about it. Something distant and far away.
It was the penguin that tipped Martin off. So familiar, yet completely forgotten. A little toy penguin stood proudly at a desk, like a rubber duck, holding a tiny bisexual pride flag. Two laptops and a desktop crowded around it, a familiar workstation, and in front of it sat Sasha. She chewed her hair, fingers typing frantically away, working hard at something that Jon would gruffly accept with a nod.
She had always been the only one to regularly be spared Jon’s wrath. She would walk back into the office, and quietly yell about how she achieved Managerial Approval. Tim would moan with jealousy, Martin would always quietly simmer with it. He always wondered why he liked her best. But - well. It was really no wonder at all.
Had she still been his favorite, even after she stopped being her? Or had Jon not cared - satisfied, as always, with the superficial, never looking deeper and seeing people for who they were. Maybe even incompetents had hidden depths, Jon.
That was unfair. By the end of it, Martin was pretty sure he and Jon were real friends. He still carried around his personality like a knife, but he was more likely to use it in defense of Martin rather than against him. He was pretty sure that was what friends did.
Or maybe real friends did what Jon and Daisy did – be so friendly and always around each other that Basira had a secret corkboard trying to find evidence that Daisy was a Not!Them. Which was fine. They could do whatever they wanted. They were consenting adults. Martin didn’t care.
The fog devepened and thickened, and another character in the scene resolved itself. Tim sat next to Sasha, a younger and less tired version of the Tim next to Martin. He was reclining in his chair, flipping easily through thick stacks of reports, for all appearances reclining on the beach but with his sharp mind working furiously behind his calm exterior.
Martin found himself looking around, searching for someone else. Where was the third player? It just wasn’t the same without him.
“Go on,” Ghost Tim whispered behind him, putting an icy hand on Martin’s back and giving him a little push. “Sit down. It’s your life.”
Was it? Or was this the life of some distant Martin, just as dead as the other two actors in this play? But Martin found himself walking forward, gripping his familiar chair and sitting down in it carefully. He looked over his desk. Cheery, cluttered with props that screamed ‘Martin!’ to everyone that stopped and looked. A Peanuts desk calendar, an assortment of plants, two Overwatch Funko pops, a Batman figurine, and a cheery little Pride Flag hoisted tall in his pencil holder. Just props.
Martin, feeling like an idiot, opened his laptop and pulled over the stack of statements next to it. Flipping through the stack, was able to easily separate the real from the fake, and almost unconsciously he began separating them. Jon always wanted the fake ones typed up anyway, since some of the other grad students used them for their anthropology studies, but the real ones would have to be given to Jon and researched –
“Okay, we’re taking bets.” Tim threw down his stack of papers, spinning easily in his chair. “Which English town does Bigfoot live in?”
“Bigfoot lives in America,” Sasha said, without looking up from her computer or pausing in her furious typing. “That’s just common knowledge.”
“Not according to…” Tim squinted at the stack. “Mr. William Knowles of Liverpool, England. He’s pretty convinced. To be fair, if I had to pick a single town in the Queen’s Country, I’d pick Liverpool too.”
“Not if he was in England on vacation with Mrs. Bigfoot,” Sasha argued. “Then he’d definitely be in London, checking out the Met or something.”
“How would Bigfoot even get on a plane?”
“He stowed away,” Sasha said promptly, as if she had been thinking about this. “In the cargo hold.”
“It’s too risky. Bigfoot prefers solitude. He lives in Scotland.” Tim turned to Martin, who was fastidiously sorting statements and trying not to think about how he didn’t remember this conversation at all, whatsoever. “What about you, Martin? What do you think?”
“Uh.” It had been so long since someone addressed Martin directly, since they wanted to make idle conversation with him, since Tim and Sasha – “He’s Lonely, probably, and we - they tend to concentrate in the UK and Scandinavia, so I think Bigfoot could be Finnish?”
Both Tim and Sasha stared at him.
“Bigfoot’s…sad?” Sasha squinted at him. “What do you mean?”
“No, I mean he’s Lonely aligned.” Martin shrugged uncomfortably. “His whole thing is about how he just wants to be left alone in the woods, right? And, uh, I’d call Mothman The End, given the whole, uh, omen thing. Jackalope…any cryptid that’s a result of creative taxidermy is naturally the Stranger.”
“What are you on about, Marto?” Tim asked, spinning easily in his chair. “Man, you’re weird.” He craned his head, looking at Martin’s almost subconscious sorting of the Statements. “How are you splitting those up? You can’t verify or unverify just from looking at them.”
“The pattern’s easy, once you get a hang of it,” Martin said, bending his head so he wouldn’t have to look inside Tim’s inquisitive eyes. The ghost of Tim was still hanging back, rocking on his heels, always a dim smear in the corner of his vision. “Categorization is easier than you’d think, if you’re experienced.”
“Weird.” Tim rolled his eyes, leaning back. “Hey, you guys want to get drinks –“
He stopped talking when the tell-tale sounds of a door opening echoed through the hallway, and with long practice they all effectively bent their heads over their work and pretended little halos were above their heads in the three seconds it took Jon to walk down the hallway and step into the main office space.
But Martin couldn’t keep his eyes averted, couldn’t protect his eyes from the sun. He looked up, staring into Jon’s eyes, and his breath caught in his chest.
When people changed, they changed so slowly. In increments, in inches. It wasn’t until you looked at photographs, at memories of them from years or decades ago, that you saw the change. He saw that in Jon now, the thousand ways Jon had changed: the way his skin was healthier, unmarred and softly glowing. No bags under his eyes, no creases around his mouth, his skin a healthy light brown. His cheekbones were sharp but not pronounced, and he had a little weight instead of gaunt cheeks and spindly limbs. His hair was much, much shorter, small twists tapering into a short fade instead of the unruly afro he had begun sporting and only recently started tying back. It still had streaks of grey, but they almost hid. He was wearing a tweed waistcoat, with corduroy jacket and slacks. Martin tried to think of what he had been wearing last time Martin had seen him – jeans and a What the Ghost shirt? No, that was before the coma. These days he had begun wearing flannel, a leather jacket, and heavy jeans. Like Tim used to wear, before – before.
Jon scowled at them all, but especially at Martin, who couldn’t tear his eyes away. “Are you all getting any work done or are you too occupied bickering about cryptids?”
“Martin’s done a great job sorting all the statements!” Tim volunteered, loyal as ever. He pointed at Martin’s two neat stacks, and Jon eyed them suspiciously. He stalked forward and plucked a stack off the desk, scanning through them easily and quickly.
He glared at Martin – no, he just looked at him, with sharp and narrow eyes. “What’s your exclusion criteria?”
“I – there’s a pattern, to the –“ Martin caught himself abruptly, remembering that Jon was still pretending to be a fucking idiot at this point. “Less easily disproven ones. Certain players that reliably show up, attitudes or strategies that the survivors use. Of course, if they tend to show up dead shortly afterwards, then that’s – then that’s usually a certain sign of something. But that requires further research, and honestly it’s just easiest to see if they record. Also, uh, specificity? If the statement’s just talking about a haunting or an encounter, without any mention of if the ghost died, then chances are it’s out. Or – or say if it seems to a violence once, but without any mention of music, then you can toss it out. Not to say that it’s all always the same, but I’ve never seen a Slaughter one without music – chances are if music shows up at all it’s Slaughter, that’s just how this works.”
Some strange, childish part of himself still felt afraid of Jon, afraid of his judgement, but Martin knew this. It was one of the few things that he did know. It was a lesson that only experience could teach. He wasn’t the longest surviving archival assistant for nothing. But Jon was staring at him, face blank, eyes dancing with suspicion, and Martin when Martin searched for anxiety or nervousness all he found was tiredness. “I mean, it’s obvious if you know what you’re doing.”
Jon just stared at him, then back at the papers, flipping through them.
Then he shoved the ‘verified’ pile under his arm and turned sharply on his heel, striding back into the hallway and going back inside his office, slamming the door behind him. Silence stretched in the office for a beat, two beats, before Tim and Sasha broke into identical and ecstatic grins.
“He didn’t even yell at you!” Tim hissed in joy. “Marto, you’re finally off the shit list!”
“That was amazing,” Sasha whispered. “You totally showed him. If he had been anyone else he totally would have told you good work.”
“And the whole ‘it’s obvious’ bit!” Tim cackled lightly. “What a burn, man! Martin, you got hidden depths wrapped in that jumper.”
“I wasn’t trying to burn him,” Martin said, cheeks red. “It’s just – it is obvious. If you want to see it. It’s not my fault Jon has selective memory.”
Sasha giggled. “Never thought I’d see the sassy side of you, Martin. It’s a very good look.”
“Ugh, Sash, don’t call gay men sassy.”
“I don’t know what else to call it! It’s the best word! Besides, you’re always calling yourself a slutty bisexual –“
“Yes, but I am bisexual, so it’s totally allowed –“
The past is a foreign country; the people are different there. Martin never felt that so keenly as now. Both Sasha and Tim were several years older than Martin – in Tim’s case, almost a decade – but they seemed so young. Had Martin ever been that young? He wanted to see himself, two years ago, wanted to see if his cheeks were still flush with color, if his hair was shorter and his smile wider. Did his eyes still have a spark? Was he kinder, more genuine? How had Martin gone so wrong?
He was happier back then, or at least Martin thought so. But he knew that memory plays tricks on you like that, smooths over the bad like gentle hands uncreasing a comforter, softens the past to be more gentle and kind. The bad is skipped over, and the good is lingered upon. But as Martin watched Sasha and Tim bicker lightly, no longer plastic and empty eyed, Martin couldn’t help but think that the past was superior to the present in every way. Jon was sitting in his office, grumbling under his breath, alive and healthy and human . Martin sat here, should be sitting here, happy and unmarked.
“You can stay, if you want,” Ghost Tim said, his hand clapping down on Martin’s shoulder. When Martin looked up he saw Tim, as he was right before he died: empty eyed, tired, like a wire about to snap. The difference between the two men, identical in almost every way, was stark. “Nobody will know.”
“I’d know.” Martin’s mouth was dry, his heart thumping heavily in his chest. “I’d always know it was wrong.”
“Don’t you always feel as if your life is wrong?” Ghost Tim asked, cocking his head. “It’s a small trade-off for security. Safety. Isn’t that what you miss, Martin? Feeling safe in your life?”
Yes, Martin was aware he likely had PTSD. Him and the entire Archives. Who cares. “I can’t run away from reality,” Martin said. Ghost Tim cackled a harsh laugh, making Martin wince. “I mean it.”
“All you do is run away,” Ghost Tim said cruelly. “A real Macbeth, always turning his face away from the reality of his sins. You run and you hide, and you protect yourself. It’s safe, isn’t it? It makes you feel good?” Ghost Tim leaned in, his breath blowing cold against Martin’s ear. “You’re never safe. That’s the reality. You can put your head in the sand, you can disappear into the fog, but reality will always be waiting for you when you leave.”
The fog rose, like high tide, and crashed over Martin. It filled the room, waves overtaking them all, and Martin cried out as Tim and Sasha were enveloped. Destroyed, eaten, burst apart. When the fog receded they were gone, and the office was empty.
But it was different. Much more familiar. Cots were set up in the corners, couches and food, and little things like hair straighteners and toiletries were scattered around. The area had transformed from an office into a home, where three women lived in close quarters and bumped elbows with each other. It was dimly lit by several desk lamps, and a sleeping bag was rolled out in the corner.
It was the Archives, as they were now. Nobody was inside, but Martin knew where they likely were: Basira was in the recording room, which she had commandeered as her own personal office, putting together her clues and trying to force her fucked up life into a logic puzzle. At least logic puzzles couldn’t hurt her. Melanie was likely in the library, where she tended to hole herself up either destroying shit or crying in a corner. Martin found himself drifting, his feet almost walking on their own, down the hallway, past Basira’s soft muttering, past Melanie’s soft sobs, until he stood in front of Jon’s office.
Martin’s hand hovered over the doorknob. Ghost Tim - Tim, there was only Tim here - leaned against the wall, arms crossed, an eyebrow arrogantly cocked.
“Will this be real?” Martin whispered.
“As real as I am.”
Martin opened the door.
It was empty - or, it seemed that way at first. Jon wasn’t at his desk, bent over statements or a tape recorder to even passed out. Martin stepped in, Tim close on his heels, and looked backwards only to find Jon on the couch against the far wall. It was just a little too short for him, his feet hanging off the far end, and he was carefully leafing through several Statements with a furrowed brow. He looked emancipated, wounded, and inhuman. He looked like Jon.
Lying next to him, half on top of him, was Daisy. Her leather jacket and jeans had been swapped for a soft tan turtleneck and leggings, and her usually buzzed hair was brushing past her chin and currently pulled into a spunky ponytail. She was even more emancipated than Jon, her once muscular and powerful limbs spindly and weak, and she fit in easily in the crook between Jon and the couch. Her cheekbones were hollow, and her eyes seemed bigger and more fragile than last time Martin saw her.
They didn’t see him, so Martin indulged himself by staring as long as he wanted. Jon was softly reading out a statement to her, and the tape recorder sitting on the floor next to them, and she appeared to be half-dozing off. It was...peaceful. Serene. Domestic. When Daisy didn’t look like she wanted to rip your throat out with her teeth, she was even a little cute.
It was like a dagger to Martin’s heart. Like a violent, hateful action, this domestic scene. Like it was an attack against him , like they were doing it to spite him despite not even knowing he was in the room.
What had he been expecting? Jon to wait until he got his act together? Jon magically knowing that Martin had ditched him for his own good and for the survival of the world - okay, that wasn’t completely out of the question, but Jon only knew most things. He had been the one who had broken off whatever sweet and slow thing was building between them, the seedling aching to break topsoil and bloom in the sun. Now he was stifled, and drowning, and it was only his own fault. Jon hadn’t done anything wrong - Martin couldn’t begrudge him his happiness.
“She’s too old for you anyway,” Martin muttered, crossing his arms. “She’s, like, forty, Jon. She’s a cradle robber. I hope you know that.”
“Maybe he’s into older women,” Ghost Tim said. “Hey, do you think she tops?”
“Of course she fucking tops,” Martin moaned. “Jesus, shut up.”
God, the last thing he wanted to think about was - yep, yep he was thinking about it, Jesus, make the mental image go away. This wasn’t fair. Nothing was fair, this was wrong , this wasn’t how it was supposed to go -
“Statement ends. This one is generally unhelpful for my needs, although it does raise interesting questions about how long someone can live with their skin removed. Turns out, uh, much longer than you’d think. Or should be...possible.” Jon looked down at Daisy. Martin couldn’t help but notice that he wasn’t touching her, although she was lightly trailing a finger on his chest. As if she was a wild animal, who had to come to you, if you were safe. “What are your thoughts?”
“I hate this shit.”
“Yes, it is rather gruesome, isn’t it?” Jon mused, gently flicking the paper. “Would you like me to read out a Hunt one? Would that, er, be satisfying?”
“No,” Daisy said shotly, and Jon shut up (“Totally whipped,” Tim snickered, right before Martin elbowed him roughly). “What time is it?”
“The Archers doesn’t start for another twenty minutes,” Jon groaned. “Honestly, why are you making me watch that dreadful show? It’s so unrealistic. Even Martin would find it sappy.”
Martin’s heart froze in his chest before jumping forward five beats. Daisy just huffed and rolled her eyes. “You said that he was a fan of One Tree Hill.”
“It’s worse than One Tree Hill!” Jon sighed, slightly readjusting his position to make Daisy more comfortable. “Do you think he’s -”
“Yes, I think he’s alright, yes, I’m sure he misses you, no, I don’t know why he’s not talking to you, no, I don’t care,” Daisy rattled off flatly. “Is that all?”
“...I suppose it’s for the best,” Jon said finally, moving the statement to the back of the pile and scanning the new one. “He never...I suppose it’s for the best. That we don’t talk anymore. I was never - he likely hates me now.” His voice quieted. “Whatever he once felt for me, it’s likely gone. I can’t imagine anyone would continue to love a monster.”
From beside him, Tim wolf-whistled. “Harsh. He’s completely given up on you.”
But Martin wasn’t thinking that. He wasn’t thinking much of all. His brain was harsh, buzzing static, swimming in nothing. Only one sentence reeled itself in Martin’s mind, so large and overwhelming that it took up every crevice and inch of his brain: I suppose it’s for the best that we don’t talk. It’s for the best that we don’t talk. It’s for the best.
“Idiot.” Daisy lifted a finger and dug it into Jon’s cheek, making him squeak. “Stop moping. You have me. You aren’t alone. Stop moping and listen to my shite dramas with me.”
“Stop it, that hurts -”
“Say you’re a little baby moper.”
“Ouch, Daisy - alright, fine, fine, I mope! I’ll stop!” Jon laughed as she let him bat her hand away, and Martin saw something alien and strange in his eyes. It was fondness. Had he ever looked at Martin like that? Or had Martin simply not noticed? “You mean it? That I have you?”
“Yeah, whatever. It’s not feelings time.”
But she reached out and grabbed his hand anyway, squeezing it tightly, breaking Martin’s heart in two.
“Rough, huh?” Tim said, slinging an arm around Martin’s shoulder and squeezing it tightly. Like an older brother, or a friend, except nothing like it at all. “Looks like they don’t need you. But it’s fine, right? It’s not like you need them either.”
“I do,” Martin whispered. “I need you and Sasha and Jon. I can’t - I can’t live this long losing everything and everyone. Tim, I have nothing left.”
Not his humanity. Not his friends. Not the man he loved. All he had was millions of pounds in his bank account, an Institute, and Peter. And what was that, at the end of the day? It didn’t help him. It wasn’t what he wanted. He had sold his soul to get everything he wanted, but somehow it had just made him lose everything. Or at least get all the wrong things.
“You have me,” Tim whispered to him. “I’ll never leave you.”
The fog swirled and swelled, and Sasha manifested in a column of clouds next to him. Gentle, soft, and kind. “We’ll never leave you.”
Martin stepped backwards, desperately trying to get away from them, desperately wanting to get closer. He hunched over, clutching his temples, feeling overwhelmed and adrift. “What’s the point of this?” He found himself asking, head fuzzing with painful static. “What’s the point of this ghost of Christmas past and present shit? When does the ghost of Christmas future show up?”
Sasha just laughed lightly, easily bumping shoulders with Tim like she used to do so often. “There’s no future. You know that.”
He did. God, he did. He had to fix it. Only he could fix it. But how could he, when he couldn’t even fix himself?
“There is a way to fix this,” Tim said softly. He stepped closer, gently taking Martin’s hand in his and squeezing it. When Martin looked up and looked at him in the eyes, he saw only kindness and sympathy. Someone, at least, cared. “There’s still a way to free yourself. Of the loneliness, of the endless watching. Of this pain.”
“You can be free again,” Sasha encouraged, stepping forward until she took his other hand. “You can be happy.”
Martin’s mouth was dry. His heart was cold. He was alone, and depressed, and traumatized, and so, so weak.
Was it okay? To be this weak? It couldn’t be. Everybody else was strong but him. Everybody else was weak but him. Was it really alright to do something for yourself, even if it hurt other people?
That had been the ethos, when he took over the Institute. A little bit of pain was alright, so long as at the end of the day people were alive. It was about harm reduction. Martin would rather have mildly frustrated hundreds of people than throw one person into the infinite abyss. The old way, the traditional way, wasn’t always better. Martin was breaking new ground in causing misery. It was just basic economics and good management. Speedrunning loneliness was a viable strategy in selling your soul.
Martin had spent his entire life avoiding taking up space. Avoiding inconveniencing people, avoiding hurting their feelings, paying the tax for existing. Until he didn’t anymore. It was freeing, in its own way. Limiting in another. He didn’t know which one he hated more. Neither made him happy. What was the middle ground, the secret path to happiness he just couldn’t find? He had the feeling Jon waited at the end, with a bright smile and a soft embrace. How to get there? Was it even possible?
“Tell me how,” Martin whispered, and the ghosts Tim and Sasha smiled as one.
Martin woke up at his desk.
His eyes felt crusty and weird, and his mouth was fuzzy like it was full of cotton.He instinctively reached out for his tea, only to find it long cold. Ugh...had he fallen asleep at his desk…?
No. No, he hadn’t. Tim’s smile was imprinted in his mind like the Cheshire cat, and that was no dream. The agreement he had made was no dream. He might as well...do it...no, it was a bad idea…
Martin groaned, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. God, how long had he been passed out? He wiggled his mouse as he groped for his phone, only to find it dead.
When his desktop lit up, Martin found to his confusion that it was two hours before he had checked out of reality. Actually, he had been in the lobby when he approached Tim, and now he was at his desk? What was the…
Then Martin checked his date, and he squeaked. It was three days later.
Three days. Three days! He had been in the Lonely for three days! Jesus Christ! Martin scrambled to plug in his phone, frantically tapping the power button until it turned on. God, he had missed so many meetings. And deadlines - that grant proposal approval was due! Shit, shit, shit! Talk about oversleeping! God, he was such a fucking wreck.
No messages on his phone. No texts, no emails. Nobody had missed him. Nobody had even noticed he was gone.
It was like a bucket of cold water dumped over his head. Nobody had even noticed that he was gone.
Martin dialed Peter with one hand as he checked his email, noticing to his confusion that there had been emails sent from his and Peter’s account in the last three days. It wasn’t Peter, actually doing work - it sounded just like Martin. It looked like Martin had gone to his meetings, approved his paperwork, completed his meaningless and routine tasks.
Amazingly, Peter picked up the phone - but then, Martin only ever called him in emergencies. Martin began talking immediately, still aware of how much Peter hated speaking on the phone. “Have I been in the Lonely for the past three days ?”
Silence, on the other end. Martin waited patiently. Finally, Peter said, “Huh?”
Martin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Have you been getting emails and texts from me?”
“Was it really from me?”
“...one must assume?”
Martin screamed through gritted teeth before hanging up on Peter. Useless fucking - good for nothing - he said that he wouldn’t abandon him, he was such a liar, Martin could have died -
No, he wouldn’t have died. He just would have gone away inside, forever, and nobody would have known.
For a brief, horrible second, Martin wondered what would have happened to him if he hadn’t taken the deal of the hollow shells of Tim and Sasha. Maybe they would have kept him trapped there forever. It was for the best.
Look, he wasn’t stupid. He knew Tim wasn’t really Tim. Sasha - as usual - wasn't Sasha. It was just...it was just that it was the closest he had.
Before Martin could think any longer about how pathetic he was for accepting eldritch fear induced hallucinations of dead friends as acceptable substitutes for actual people, the door to the stairwell next to the elevator slammed open. Martin started at the loud bang - for the last year he hadn’t been good with loud noises or sudden movements, which he wasn’t thinking about too hard - and flinched, and it was only when he opened his eyes that he saw Jon.
And Jon saw him.
He looked frantic and windswept, hair escaping from his ponytail and puffing out around his face. His leather jacket was tied around his waist, his flannel half-unbuttoned, and he in general gave off the impression of having bolted upright from sleep and dashed straight up to the third floor. He locked eyes with Martin, and Martin realized for the first time that his eyes were no longer a warm and comforting brown but an electric green.
“Martin!” Jon cried. “You’re back!”
Martin opened his mouth, then closed it. Stupidly, he was surprised that Jon could see him. But there was no reason why he wouldn’t be able to - he wasn’t in the Lonely, he wasn’t invisible and unseen. He was just sitting at his desk, having one of his many daily crises, staring at the one man he never wanted to see. The one man who he spent every second wanting to see.
“I never left,” Martin said, mouth dry.
Jon stalked forward, gripping the edges of Martin’s chair and leaning in. Martin leaned back, carefully avoiding eye contact with Jon out of some forgotten impulse. There was something strange about his irises. They...they weren’t still. They tilted left and right sometimes, like a gently shaking wheel, like a Magic 8 Ball.
“You were gone for three days,” Jon said. “I couldn’t See you. I can always - I can always See you, I always know where you are. But you weren’t here, even though you were here , and Martin - I was worried out of my mind! Are you alright? What happened?”
Martin fought the urge to wheel his chair back. He hated the way Jon was looking at him. Like he was the only one in the world. Martin was furniture, Martin was the ninja, Martin was the background character. Stupid creepy eye powers.
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” Martin said, instead of a thousand things. Instead of the truth. Something weird and mean and boiling in him compelled him to add, “Where’s Daisy? Shouldn’t you be worrying about her instead of me?”
Jon flinched, as if struck. He straightened, but his gaze never left Martin’s. His eyes, once so warm and comforting that they felt like a soft blanket, were alien and cutting and never once broke free from Martin. They searched for something deep within him, but whatever Jon was searching for he couldn’t find.
“Okay. Okay, I have something to say, and you’re not going to - to disappear on me, or fade away, or anything.” Jon took a deep breath, and rummaged in his pocket for something. He broke eye contact with Martin for a second to skim the paper, mouthing words to himself. He cleared his throat, and carefully read from the paper while still making an attempt to make it look as if he was not reading from it, “I know you must be mad at me, and that I did something wrong that hurt you. I am deeply sorry that I’ve hurt you like this. But our relationship is important to me, and I would like to be friends again. If you want to tell me what I did wrong, we can discuss it, and I can apologize and work on not doing it again. Thank you for your time. I miss you - no, that’s crossed out, never mind.” Jon looked up, still looking a little frantic, and very lost. “That’s it. Well?”
Martin stared at him.
“Did…” Martin cleared his throat, scavenging for words. “Did you get that out of a self help book?”
“ The Art of Apology. By Richard Scotch.” Jon blinked at him. “Did it work?”
“...did I do it wrong?”
Martin kneaded his forehead, abruptly too tired for this. Everything was too much. He couldn’t deal with his own problems and Jon’s too. He couldn’t be the Martin of two years ago, of a year ago, or the Martin that Jon remembered. All he could be was himself. He didn’t know how to be anyone else, no matter how much he wanted to.
“This isn’t…” Martin’s throat dried up, and he had to stop to swallow again. “This isn’t about you, Jon. It’s actually not about you at all.”
Jon blinked at him some more, clearly caught off guard. “It’s...not?”
Of course. Because the world revolved around Jon, quite literally, and Jon’s life revolved around Jon, and Jon was the hero. And Martin was furniture.
Never Hamlet, merely some attendant lord, satisfied to start a scene or two. Politic, cautious, meticulous, glad to be of use. At times, the fool.
Did he dare? Did he dare descend the stair? Did he dare to eat a peach?
Was it okay to exist? Did he even deserve it, when far better people than him were dead and gone? Martin was trying to be good, he was working so hard to make his existence mean something, but when he saved the world would anybody even notice?
Jon was in front of him. Jon was noticing him. And Martin now knew that this wasn’t what he had wanted so much after all.
“Did it even occur to you,” Martin said, his voice tightly controlled, “that what I’m going through has nothing to do with you at all? Not everything is about you and your drama, Jon.”
“I...heard about your Mum.” Jon didn’t break eye contact, his mouth flattening into an upset line. “I really can’t express - I’m an orphan too, I understand your pain.”
“Did your parents love you?” Martin asked dully, way too tired to care anymore. “Because if they did, then you really don’t.”
“I - er, don’t remember?” Jon adopted a contemplative expression even as his pupils span like a lottery wheel, fetching the answer for him. “They did, as it turns out. That’s nice to know. But -”
“Jon. I can’t be Martin anymore.” Much in the same way that Jon was no longer Jon, that Daisy was no longer Daisy, that Helen was no longer Helen, Martin just couldn’t be Martin. “I can’t clean up after your messes. I can’t smooth over all of the feathers you’ve ruffled. I can’t keep our family together. Our family is gone, and - and they’re never coming back. Not ever.” Martin felt nothing as he said this, cold and fogged inside, even as Jon looked like his heart was breaking. “We can’t repair it. Nobody wants it to be repaired. And - and I can’t do it anymore. I can’t be the Martin that you had cared about. All I can be is me.”
Jon opened his mouth, then closed it. Finally, he said, “I care about you. I don’t care about what you can do for me. I like you as you are. I don’t need you to be different. Wherever you are, Martin, I’ll meet you there. I’ll find you.”
It was, quite possibly, the nicest thing Jon had ever said to him in his life. But Martin couldn’t believe it. It rang hollow and fake, empty words meant to soothe. Not that Jon was really that type, but - well. Maybe his self-help book had told him.
Martin spread his hands, welcoming Jon to look at him. To really see him: to see his neat suit, his short and bristly hair, the weight he had lost. If he saw Martin, or if he saw a stranger...that was none of Martin’s business. “I’m right here. Come find me.”
Then he let himself fade back into the Lonely, and disappear from Jon’s eyes. When he got up from his chair Jon didn’t see him, frantically looking around, leaning forward and waving a hand where he sat only to brush nothing but empty air.
“Martin? Martin, come back! Dammit!” Jon punched the desk, hard, cursing and shaking out his hand when all he accomplished was hurting himself. “Martin, please just come back, we can talk about this!” He leaned his head back, opening his eyes wide, and let his pupils spin and spin and spin. The green shone vibrantly and angrily, a color not found in nature. “I can’t See you. What’s the point of having this stupid power if I can’t See the one person - dammit!”
He punched the desk again, angry and desperate, and bent in on himself. He looked close to breaking. Jon always looked like that, a fragile spun glass vase, but it was different this time. He had always been so strong to Martin, had always borne the weight of the world on his shoulders with his usual grouchy frown. It had always been comforting - no matter what was going on, Jon would show up to work the next day. Sometimes with extra scars, a few more bandages, but the job always came first. Martin could always trust Jon to be Jon - just as, Martin suspected, Jon had always trusted Martin to be Martin.
But he wasn’t anymore. Martin, the silent pillar of his support, was gone, and Jon was lost. He had taken Martin for granted, and now he was gone, and Jon was alone.
Jon was lonely.
No Sasha, no Tim, no Martin. Their little family was split apart, and its new iteration didn’t even realize how important it was. Basira still thought she could do it alone, and Melanie was too suffocated by her own pain to reach out. All he had was Daisy, but a monster couldn’t lead another monster back to humanity. The Institute was killing them, slow and sure as a poison, and Martin knew that Jon wasn’t as strong as he was. He wouldn’t survive the loneliness. He didn’t know how to use it.
Whatever those creatures of fog and loneliness pretending to be Sasha and Tim really were...they were right. This couldn’t continue.
Only one person could save them. Only Martin had separated himself enough from the Beholding to do it. Only Martin had the clarity, the sense of purpose, the knowledge that their house of cards couldn’t stand. He didn’t want to do it, but it would protect them in the long run. It would protect everybody he loved. He didn’t need to make a backroom deal with Peter anymore, didn’t need to rely on his good graces - he could do it by himself. He was powerful enough now. He was strong.
Either strong, or weak, but Martin knew now that there was no difference. The weak and the strong in society were the same, just two sides of the same coin. The predator and prey were the shadow and the light in every person, chasing and being chased. The pawn who reached the end of the chessboard could transform into a queen, and that was just what Martin was going to do.
He had spent the last year manipulating Peter, showing him the face of prey while he had secretly been scrambling for every scrap of power he could find. He didn’t know if he was more powerful than Peter now, but Peter couldn’t control him. Neither could Elias.
Martin was free. And if it felt remarkably like being so thoroughly trapped that he couldn’t move - well, it was all the same in the end.
It was remarkably easy to find explosives in London.
In fact, they were easily found in the supply closet in the Institute basement. Happily hiding underneath a box of Windex, Sasha pointed them out to him as she told him in a low voice how good he was doing, how happy Jon was going to be, why this was such a good idea.
He didn’t really know how to set up explosives, but Tim did. He explained how to use them, the best places in the basement to put them, and Martin robotically did so. He wondered how the explosives had even gotten there, but Sasha had just waved aside his concerns. She knew people who knew people, apparently. Since when did lonely creatures know anybody?
It should have hurt, that yet another monster was pretending to be Sasha. But Martin couldn’t work himself up to feel much about anything. Too much energy that he just didn’t have.
He almost didn’t remember the walk down to the basement. A bright, clear Tuesday morning, just before lunch, the Institute was abandoned and still. He walked down its silent and clean halls, alone and isolated, and for the first time he felt perfectly at peace in that loneliness and isolation. Everything was exactly as it was meant to be. Sometimes he saw a shadow out of the corner of his vision, a dark figure moving, but when he looked closer all he saw was a spider spinning a web in the corner. He knew where to go, where to look, what to find. He simply understood, in a way that he had simply understood where to push and where to prod to move people in the right way.
It had always been a talent of his, really. His mother had known. At eight years old Martin remembered being always hungry, because his family had transitioned from living on his dad’s factory paycheck to what meager sums passed for child support. He had started figuring out how to get lunches from the other kids: sometimes by playing on pity, sometimes by trickery, sometimes just by knowing what to trade or what buttons to push. It was easy, really. Martin hadn’t known why more people didn’t do it.
Maybe that was the beginning of it: the beginning of Martin’s descent into the worst kind of person. His mother had certainly thought so. She had always known things about him Martin could never see, had always shone her terrible light into the most putrid parts of his soul and personality. Maybe she had always been right about him.
Martin didn’t have to think. It felt almost impossible, like he was wading through a thick and distant fog. Sometimes little details jumped out at him: the bright and happy color of the cleaner, the dusty cement corner behind the boiler where he set up the first package of C4, the support column where he set up the second, the generator where he set up the third.
Between the dusty and antique generator and the cement floor he saw a spider spinning a web. Spinning, and spinning, and spinning…
It stopped when it saw Martin looking, and it carefully crawled away, even when Martin held out his hand to try to pick it up. For some reason, that was the only thought that permeated his brain: if he blew up the Institute, the spiders would die.
“Don’t worry,” Sasha crooned in his ear. “They’re all leaving. See?”
Sure enough, they were: they were filing out single file, creeping into crevasses and quietly exiting the basement through secret pathways known only to them. Well. At least they would be safe.
He was in the Lonely, unfindable and safe. It settled over his shoulders like a blanket, comforting and cold, keeping Martin’s head pleasantly distant. His fingers didn’t shake when he connected the wires Sasha told him to, only dipping into the real world to securely fashion the explosives against the basement pillars.
Technically speaking, they were near the Archives. There was a great deal of empty space in the basement that went uncovered by Artifact Storage and the Archives, a room of boilers and generators, and it was between these mechanical behemoths that Martin crouched. He cursed as an open wire scraped against his skin, instinctually putting his scraped thumb in his mouth, but it didn’t hurt. When he looked at his thumb, the opened skin didn’t bleed.
“Am I still human?” Martin wondered.
Sasha crossed her arms, raising an eyebrow. “Plenty of people bleed with beating hearts and working lungs without being human , Martin. Haven’t you seen them? Human beings, sleepwalking through life, nothing but fleshy cogs of the capitalist machine? You’re much more human than any of them.”
Like everyone in the Institute. Every worker in it had lost...something, something almost impossible to get back. Their eyes were glazed and dead, and they woke up in the morning with no motivation to get through the day. That was something Martin had done to them, and was continuing to do to them. For what? For what?
“It made you feel good,” Tim said. “Didn’t it? Didn’t it feel good to hurt other people, instead of being the one hurt for once?” He stood next to Martin, arms crossed like Sasha, cold and distant. Like Mum. “Did you know that Shakespeare invented the word lonely, Martin? Maybe this is what you were made for.”
Martin stood up, dusting his hands off. That was most of them. All he had to do was -
A familiar sound echoed from behind his head, and a cold pressure nudged the back of his skull. Martin froze.
“Hands up,” a familiar voice said, husky and hoarse.
Martin put his hands up, and immediately threw himself back into the Lonely -
“No you fucking don’t ,” Daisy snarled, and a hand reached out to grip his shirt collar. She was thrown with him, into the endless fog and cold, and when the world took on its familiar muted colors her hand stayed on his collar, warm and alive.
She gripped his collar firmly, spinning him around until Martin saw her face. It was impassive, fierce and focused, but there was something quietly shocked and horrified in her eyes too.
Tim and Sasha stood behind Martin, flanking him, although he could barely only catch them from the corner of his eyes. Daisy saw them too: her expression slackened when she saw Tim, mouthing a single short word, before she tore her gaze away from him and focused on Martin.
“What were you doing,” Daisy whispered hoarsely. She shook him, making Martin’s head jostle. “Don’t try getting away again. I can smell you. I’ll track you down. What were you doing .”
“Helping,” Martin said. He wasn’t scared of her. He didn’t know why, as nobody with a brain wasn’t scared of Daisy - even Jon was, although it was pretty pathetic to be scared of your own girlfriend. But he wasn’t. He couldn’t feel much of anything. “I’m taking down the Eye. Once and for all.”
“What about the fucking people ?” Daisy hissed. “There’s people in this building, you stupid asshole!”
Martin stopped short. There -
In the building -
It was morning. Everybody was still in here. What the -
She must have seen it in him before he did, because she abruptly readjusted her grip to step aside, letting him roughly vomit onto the floor. It was disgusting, the taste lingering behind his teeth, and it was mostly dry heaving. He hadn’t eaten in days, after all.
“Idiot,” Daisy said coldly. “I don’t know what Jon sees in you.”
Martin spat a last glob of vomit onto the cement floor, wiping his mouth. “I don’t know what he sees in you either,” he said weakly. “You obviously still have a thing for Basira.”
“I - what?” Daisy’s brow furrowed, before she recoiled in disgust. “You think we’re sleeping together? Christ, why does everyone think that?”
“Wonder why,” Martin muttered. “Can’t possibly be how you’re attached at the hip.”
“I - never mind. This isn’t important.” Daisy shook her head roughly. “What do you think you’re doing? Did Peter put you up to this?”
She was still gripping his collar. It was the most anybody had ever touched him in a very long time, and it was Daisy Tonner , and Martin just wanted her to let go so he could disappear. Maybe so he could leave her here. A day, or a week, in the Lonely would calm her down. No, that was cruel -
But so was blowing up an occupied building.
“Oh, buzz off, Daisy,” Tim sneered. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. A wolf with no teeth gets put down, don’t you know? Don’t you think it’s time someone put you down?”
“Did this thing put you up to this?” Daisy said. She was ignoring Tim completely, although she could obviously hear him. She just kept looking at Martin, furiously and intensely, like if she took her eyes off him then he would disappear. Like Jon did. “Was this their idea? Did they get you the explosives?”
Martin nodded, afraid if he opened his mouth then he would throw up again.
“You’re an inhuman monster,” Sasha sneered. “Nobody loves you or cares for you. You’re a burden on all of your friends. Jon’s just taking pity on you. He’s not really your friend. How could he be? After everything you’ve -”
Then Daisy shot her between the eyes with her giant fuck-off shotgun, and Sasha burst into spiders. A second later, she did the same to Tim, and Tim also burst into spiders.
Martin was not scared of spiders. He rather enjoyed them. He, however, did not enjoy being awash in a flood of spiders. They collapsed all over him, crawling into every crevasse and his open mouth, and Martin instinctually dipped out of the Lonely, bringing Daisy with him.
The spiders disappeared, trapped in the endless fog. Martin re-entered reality with Daisy on his heels, and his bodily sensations returned to him. His heart jumping in his chest, his palms sweaty, every limb shaking. He knew he was on his way to another panic attack. He always just went into the Lonely to avoid those, but there were spiders there, nowhere was safe, there was no place on Earth or beyond that was safe for him -
“Breathe. In and out. In for one, two, three. Out for four, five, six, seven. Breathe, Martin.”
By the time he came back to himself he saw that he was sitting on the floor, surrounded by bombs, and Daisy was crouched next to him. Her large eyes contrasted her gaunt face, and there was something difficult to identify dancing within her eyes. Not pity, but not scorn. Not anger, but not acceptance. A mix of everything.
“How many Entities are you working for?” She asked him brusquely.
Martin shuddered a deep gasp. “I - I don’t think I even know.”
“How long have you been obeying the Mother?” Daisy pushed.
“I don’t - I don’t know.” Martin shivered. “I’ve been seeing Tim since - since he died? I didn’t think anything of it…” He coughed, trying desperately to get the vile taste of vomit out of his mouth. “I didn’t think anything of it. I just...he said that he could give me power. Power enough to protect everyone.”
“The Web says a lot of things,” Daisy said flatly. She frowned at him, as if she was trying to figure him out, and Martin remembered that people didn’t make detectives by being an idiot. “Power, just for power’s sake...trust me, Blackwood. It’s not worth it. All it does is burn and warp and twist you. All it does is make you into...this horrible, inhuman thing.”
Her voice was hoarse, fraught with regret and brittle pain, and for the first time Martin considered Daisy as she was - not as Jon’s girlfriend, if that was even what she was, not as this faceless and cruel cop, but as a person who had weathered incredible pain and come out stronger for it. What pain had she borne? What deserts had she prevailed through? The Buried had changed her - but then, the Entities were so good at that. A crucible that forged them all.
“So?” Martin said, instead of what he was thinking. “My family’s dead. Everyone’s gone, or a monster. I don’t have anybody to be human for.”
Daisy’s mouth tightened, and she stood up. “You have me. And the others. We’re still here. We’re not gone.” She extended a hand, and Martin stared at it for what felt like an agonizingly long time before he let himself reach out and take her hand. It was warm, and small, and coarse, and real. She pulled Martin up, and for the first time let him go. “Go home, Blackwood. Get some sleep. I’ll clean all this up.”
“Are you going to tell Jon?” Martin asked, smaller than he intended. He felt like he had just had a bonding moment with Daisy fucking Tonner, who was basically the third to last person on Earth who he wanted to have a bonding moment with.
“I think that’s a conversation the two of you need to have.” Daisy stepped forward, and jabbed a finger in his chest. “If you ever do anything to endanger Jon and Basira again, I will rip out your throat with my teeth. That is a promise.”
“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for them,” Martin said weakly. “I never wanted -”
“None of us wanted this. You said that you don’t care what happens to you. I don’t think that’s true. Humanity still...it still has a point , Martin.” She ground her teeth, as if her thoughts and feelings and emotions were just too big for whatever small words could approximate what she knew. “Choices. You have to make a choice. Nobody is forcing you. Nobody can manipulate you if you don’t let them. You can choose if your trauma and pain and coldness makes you a monster, or if it makes you stronger.” She exhaled slowly, and Martin noticed for the first time the hint of yellow in her icy blue eyes. “We don’t get to decide what hurts us. But we can decide if we take that hurt and - and use it to hurt others, or if we make it into something good. Okay?”
Martin opened his mouth, then closed it. He didn’t know what to say.
But Daisy was already letting go of him, pushing him towards the door that lead to the stairwell. “Go. You’re lucky I’m not killing you now.”
But luck had nothing to do with it. A year ago, she would have killed him. Either that or helped him. But Daisy had made her own choices, and Martin had made his, and there was nothing else to do.
Martin went home.
He didn’t remember getting home, or taking off his suit and sliding into pyjamas, or crawling into bed. He only remembered lying in bed, listening to the fan beat its eternal rhythm, head full of static and crawling spiders.
Looks like he was a servant of three masters. It was as comedic as the play: a single man, bending his knee to three gods. Talk about divorced parents.
But it was clear, wasn’t it? Martin had manipulated, lied, and cheated his way to the top. What was more Web than that? He hadn’t really evaded the Lonely, or gotten a one-up on the Beholding. He had just been dancing to a different tune.
He wasn’t as smart as he thought he was. He wasn’t as clever or cunning. He had managed to convince Peter that he was on his side - but wasn’t Peter getting everything he wanted out of this? A servant of his god, an arm to act against the Extinction? If Peter even really cared about the Extinction.
He had Seen everybody and everything, and he hadn’t acted. He was nothing more than an impartial observer of his own life, a distant face, just like Elias had always wanted. A ceaseless watcher after all.
An isolated figure, always watching, spinning his own secret webs. Jack of all trades, master of none, it seemed like. So Martin had auctioned himself off, selling his soul for sixpence, his eyes for a shilling, his heart for a farthing. Was that all he was? Could he be reduced down to his component parts, his empty bodies?
Martin silently turned on his phone, flipping through his photo album until he landed on the picture he had taken of the polaroid. Sasha, Tim, Jon, Martin. Four people, all dead and gone. Replaced by monsters, or by empty spaces.
Maybe there was no more going back. There was only a future ahead of him, and a choice. It was only his choice. Nobody could make it for him, no matter how much he wanted them to.
Martin did the hardest thing he had ever done. He texted Jon.
Martin: How are you?
The answer was, of course, almost immediate.
Jon: Fine! I’m really good. Daisy’s sleeping on me again, she seemed super wiped out so I’m trying to let her rest. She’s snoozing up a storm! :) How are you? You went home early.
Martin: I’m not doing good.
Jon: Do you want to talk about it?
Jon: You don’t have to, I won’t make you, but if you want to share, then I’d want to listen.
Martin: I do want to talk about it, actually
Jon: I want to listen
Together, apart. As always. But they texted each other until the sun slowly crawled back beneath the horizon, and Martin fell asleep with a smile on his phone, phone gently clutched in his hand, as if it was another warm hand in his.