It starts, like so many things in Jon’s life have started, with a nagging itch of curiosity.
He’s chain-smoking, because he always smokes when he gets maudlin, because it distracts him and he likes the acrid smell of it and the way that it buzzes on his skin, because it’s something to do with his mouth that’s not chewing on pens until the ink spills out or asking too many inappropriate questions. Because he’s hungry and the nicotine--increases dopaminergic projections to the nucleus accumbens, along with binding to α3β4 receptors, both of which could apparently inhibit appetite. He had decidedly not known any of that two seconds ago, but that’s--fine. As far as random Knowledge goes it’s practically tame.
He can hear Georgie’s voice in his head, reminding him of the health risks of cigarettes, and he scowls at the ground because he doesn’t care. Something in him almost wishes he could still die at the hands of something as mundane as smoking, and suddenly he’s thinking of Trevor Herbert standing up after dying of lung cancer and the way Georgie’s face creased in something between horror and pity before she left his hospital room, and before he can think more about it he’s grinding the ember of his cigarette into his wrist.
He regrets it as soon as the heat touches his skin; it hurts, and he can’t stop himself from crying out, a mangled yelp of pain leaving his lips. The skin bubbles and blisters and Jude Perry is laughing and there’s something dark and delighted in her eyes, something hungry--
It only takes a few seconds for the skin to heal back up, the blister deflating to tight scar tissue until that fades too and his wrist is almost exactly as it had been. He can see the outline if he squints, a circle of skin slightly shinier than it had been a minute ago, but that’s it.
He lets out a tiny, shaky laugh as he finds himself back in the present, letting himself slump back against the wall. Of course. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy.
It was a good distraction, though. He’s not thinking of anything else anymore, just looking at the smooth skin of his wrist and wondering how far exactly his new healing extends.
He likes cuts better than burns, he decides eventually. Not scalpel cuts--too clean, healing before a single drop of blood leaves them, white flesh stitching back together immediately--but harsh jagged cuts from a knife that is just a little duller than it should be. Blood trickles down his skin even after the wound heals and for a minute, breathing hard and dabbing at himself with the corner of his shirt, he can pretend that he’s still human enough to be hurt.
Broken bones are even better; he doesn’t have to be brave for them, doesn’t have to keep up his courage for twisting the knife, can just drop something heavy or throw himself down a flight of stairs and listen to himself snap. He screams, but there’s a rush of endorphins and shock and no bad memories to relive, just pain and then the absence thereof.
He tells himself it’s important for him to know the extent of his healing powers for the sake of being prepared for threats, but even he knows that it’s a transparent lie.
The truth is, he’s curious. Every time it hurts, he thinks that he’ll never do it again, but then it heals and it’s not long before he starts wondering again how much farther he can go.
It’s after the coffin that he makes up his mind.
He hadn’t intended to come out of it, really, and--Daisy seemed so sure that renouncing the Hunt was the right thing to do. He wasn’t as strong as Daisy was, when the static roared in his ears, but… maybe he could renounce his patron as well, in his own way.
He Knows exactly how deep each artery is, Knows exactly how to angle the knife.
His hand shakes no matter how much he tries to force it still; he holds the knife against his skin for minutes, sets it down, picks it back up again, sets it down, before at last he grabs it and cuts into his own throat. One movement, too fast for him to change his mind halfway through. Fast enough to do damage.
A short spurt of blood and then--nothing. He’s fine. Probably used to lose more blood when he scraped his knees. He’s healing much faster now than he had when he first started his experimenting, he notes, dully, and as he slides to the floor his cheeks are damp with tears.
He should have known better. He had already died once and came back, hadn’t he? Why would it be any different? He couldn’t cut off a finger, why did he expect he could die? He got one chance to die, to escape, and he didn’t take it, and now he’s trapped here with that choice, unless another avatar manages to kill him first.
But his tears are not misery or resignation, not really. He’s not exhausted at the prospect of having to live; he’s relieved, so relieved that he’s shaking apart with it. He can say he did his best, now, he tried to kill the monster, tried to lock himself underground, and nobody can blame him if it didn’t work.
There is a buzzing on his skin. It’s not nicotine, this time. He can feel it. A man, he thinks. Corruption-touched. Nearby. It feels like there are a hundred magnets embedded beneath his skin, pulling at him.
He hates himself as he opens the door, but it is a weary hate, so very quiet in comparison to the blazing of hunger.
He can’t help but test it more, of course. It’s a good enough distraction from the hunger, and it shoots enough adrenaline through his body to make it difficult to sleep. Once, insomnia might have been a downside, but these days he takes it as a kindness. Basira threatens to put him down if he does anything and he wants to laugh in her face, tell her good luck, I’ve been trying and it’s harder than it looks. Veins are even more useless than arteries at killing him; he had figured as much, but the confirmation is good to have, and the feeling is sharp and bright and heady. Poisons have a range of effects; he spits up pills, gets miserably sick on pesticides, breathes carbon monoxide as easily as oxygen. It’s good information to have, he tells himself, and almost means it. He is curious how far he can push the healing factor before it starts to push back, or if it ever will. And if he would have balked at the idea a year ago--well, he had been a lot more human, a year ago. Knowing matters more, now that he’s like this, and having such a large unanswered question itches, taunting him into trying again, and again, and again. Each time, the same flash of emotion, maybe this time it’ll finally work mixed with no please I take it back I didn’t mean it I don’t want to die, panic and hope thick on his tongue. Each time, the healing, over and over until he gives up and reads an old statement. The words are flavorless on his tongue and he is so, so tired.
“Jon!” The horror in Martin’s voice, painted on his face, makes Jon freeze where he stands.
“Um,” Jon says lamely. The knife is loose in his hand. “Uh. It’s not what it looks like?”
“You’re--your wrists, Jon, are you really--”
“It’s okay, it looks a lot worse than it is, it’ll be healed in a moment. You weren’t supposed to be home yet.” It comes out like an accusation. The blood is dripping into the sink, making Jon something that is not quite dizzy.
“The shop was closed,” Martin replies automatically before blinking hard, refocusing. “That’s not the point! You can’t just attempt suicide when I’m out getting groceries, Jon!”
“I wasn’t attempting suicide,” Jon says, and there’s a scowl in his voice, as though Martin is ridiculous for thinking such a thing. It’s not very fair of him, he knows, Martin has no way of knowing. “This is perfectly safe, I’ve been doing it for months and I’m fine.”
“Um!” Martin’s voice jumps an octave. “You’ve been doing this for months?”
“Since the coffin.”
“And it never occurred to you that slitting your wrists might be considered a suicide attempt?”
“Not for-- not anymore. Apparently.” His wrists are smooth now, blood still dripping down the absence of any wounds; his chin juts pointedly towards them. “Whatever keeps me alive, it’s not my blood. Honestly, you’re probably just lucky that my insides aren’t covered in eyes.” He snorts slightly, but it’s utterly humorless as he tries very hard not to think about how he feels about the hypothetical.
“Jon,” Martin says, his voice going suddenly soft and careful. “When you went into the Lonely for me, were you expecting to come back?”
“...Kind of?” Jon’s head tilts at the apparent change of subject. “I mean, I came out of the coffin, I came out of the coma, I came back from--this--and the black sun didn’t kill me, either, or any of the other… things, that have got their hands on me.” An old conversation echoes in his mind: Feels like all I’ve managed to do is… not die. And believe me, that is a remarkably rare skill. “But it’s not like I was broken up over the possibility. I don’t think the Archivist is traditionally a position with a long life expectancy, Gertrude Robinson aside.” Martin is still looking at him with those sad eyes that look like a kicked puppy and he wants to snap at him and stalk off except for the number of times he had sworn never to do that again, except for the way Martin still goes pale and misty on bad days, so he takes a deep breath and changes tacks. “Look, I’m sorry. I should have either stopped or told you. But it’s not--it’s not like I ever wanted to die. I was just curious.”
Martin lets out a huff of breath, at that. “You’re a terrible liar, you know. Always have been. I mean--a bread knife, really?”
Jon winces and looks down, gritting his teeth as he slams the faucet handle to as cold as it can go. “I’m not lying.”
“Jon. Since you--since the Unknowing, until--I don’t even know when--I was hoping to die. You heard my tape saying goodbye. I know what suicidality looks like. You do a bunch of--stupid bullshit, trying to get yourself killed, and you can tell yourself noble excuses about why you’re really doing it but--I joined the Lonely because I. Wanted. To. Die. You don’t even have the excuse of trying to stop an apocalypse. I mean, really, Jon! This isn’t even subtle, you literally slit your wrists into our bathroom sink.”
Jon does snap at that, the words coming out before he can help himself. “Don’t be ridiculous, Martin. By that definition I’ve attempted suicide, what, five times since I woke up from my coma? With approval and permission from other Institute staff, who are, you may note, less personally biased by their feelings for me.” Jon scrubs the blood from his wrist with an unnecessary viciousness as silence echoes in the safehouse. When the last of it is down the drain, he speaks again, not lifting his head. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you?” Martin’s voice sounds far away; Jon can’t tell if it’s the roaring of blood in his ears or if Martin’s falling into the Lonely again.
“I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve already apologized twice, just take it, okay?” Jon slams the sink handle again.
“I don’t want an apology!”
“What do you--” Jon cuts himself off before he can finish the question. “I would… appreciate it, if you told me what you did want.”
“This isn’t--this isn’t okay! I mean-- Christ, Jon, you have to realize that this isn’t okay!”
“If it had worked,” Jon spits, “maybe you wouldn’t have had someone knocking on your door asking to file a complaint.” He sighs, exhaustion and hunger marking lines deep in his faces. “Anyway, you don’t have to worry about me. Not like I’m going to die. Proved that one nice and thoroughly.”
“Really not getting less worrying, here,” Martin says, taking a tentative step forward. “Is that why—“
“It was after the coffin. Like I said.”
“...The Buried didn’t kill you, so you decided to, what, take matters into your own hands?”
“Something like that.” Jon’s hands shake; he holds the edge of the sink until his knuckles go pale, trying to hold them still. “You said—you had said—you wanted to die too?”
“Yeah. I— literally gave you my taped suicide note, and you didn’t notice?”
“...I thought you were asking for help. Or that Peter was gloating, or maybe Annabelle Cane was—“
“You know, this explains a lot about the quality of your lies, actually.” A smile sneaks its way onto Martin’s face.
“Shut up!” Jon says immediately, the tips of his ears going crimson. “I was going to ask, uh, whether you’re okay now.”
“Yeah,” Martin says, after a moment of thought. “I mean, there are bad days, don’t get me wrong, but—I want to live! Living is great! It’s… better.”
A long silence stretches between them before Jon opens his mouth again. “Why didn’t you—I mean. You’re… typically supposed to get help for that sort of thing, I think.”
“I mean. For a certain definition of help…” Martin starts, and then stops when he sees the look in Jon’s eyes. “I mean… Yeah? But, uh.” Martin looks pointedly at Jon’s wrists. “Doesn’t really look like you followed your own advice, there.”
“It’s not like I could tell a therapist that I was attempting suicide because I knew I’d live and was curious about how it feels! Anyway, I… I thought about it? And it’s— I mean, people like you. You don’t even hurt spiders. And you’re still…” Jon sighs. “You know. Still... human.”
“You’re a bit more important to me than spiders, Jon.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe I shouldn’t be. I don’t exactly think that statements are an important part of the ecosystem.”
“What.” It’s not a question, doesn’t compel, but Jon’s eyes are blazing in what might be anger and might be hunger.
“I-- don’t want to fight about this, Jon, alright? I’m going to care about you whether you like it or not. We’ve both done the whole--self-isolating, keeping secrets from each other, thing, and it never goes well.”
“Right. I’m--I’m sorry. I just--it hurts, Martin, it hurts, all the time--and I don’t want to die, I know how it looks but I don’t, I just--it’s not like what I want means anything anymore--” And just like that he’s crying, swiping at his tears with his bad hand.
“Hey, hey hey hey--” Martin draws him close, holds him, and it’s almost too much but it’s also something in the world that doesn’t feel like spinning. “I’m sorry. I mean--I’m not going to let you, uh, hunt, but… I’m sorry. I didn’t--I didn’t realize.”
“No, you don’t--you have nothing to be sorry for. I’ll just--I’ll do better.”
Martin’s eyes crease and he holds Jon a little tighter. “No, I mean--it’s okay . I’m--we’re getting a shipment of statements from Basira soon, right? You just have to hold on until then. Can you do that for me?”
“Alright,” Jon says. “Alright.”
(After the world ends, Jon stops trying. There isn’t really any point. He plays the tapes over and over and lets himself imagine a world where he had tried a little bit harder, a little bit earlier.)