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Felt So Like Fear

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“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”
C.S. Lewis - A Grief Observed


Nobody notices Martin arriving at the Institute in the morning. It’s almost nice, in a way. Takes off the pressure of making small talk and worrying what people think of you. Martin’s always liked to think of himself as a social person, but the reality is that he’s found it kind of a relief, being removed from it all. Peter would be pleased to hear it. 

He’s still afraid, of course. And so lonely some days that he feels like he could die. But he’s used to those feelings. They’re old friends. It’s better than how he felt before, the sick grief and guilt, the helpless longing for things to somehow be different from reality. This is quieter, less painful. More than anything, loneliness is numbing, and numb is about the best Martin can ask for these days. 

He pops into the canteen for a cup of tea, leaving the money by the till when the bloke running the cash register doesn’t look up from his newspaper. Then he heads up to his office on the second floor. Martin’s not strictly certain it’s his office, it doesn’t have his name on it or anything. But it was empty back when Peter strongly suggested he shouldn’t work down in the Archives anymore, if he wanted to make any progress, so it’s his now.

Martin does want to make progress. He needs to, if he’s going to protect Basira and Melanie, and everyone else, if Peter’s to be believed. Martin isn’t sure how much he believes Peter, and he knows Peter’s up to something more than he’s letting on, but there’s enough evidence for Martin to at least believe the Archives are in danger, if he didn’t know that before. Enough for him to know what he needs to do. It’s not as if he has another option.

If there’s one thing that isolation is good for, it’s productivity. Martin gets through three weeks worth of rota, and the budget approvals for next month (which Peter will sign without even pretending to review) and is in the middle of rewriting the outdated procedure for accessing Artifact Storage, when he hears a faint click near his right elbow, followed by a low hiss of tape unspooling.

He goes rigid, his heart rate spiking. It can’t be, he hasn’t heard that sound in months, not since -

Martin looks down, and sees the tape recorder, dark gray and undeniable, half buried under a pile of manila folders. He realizes he’s holding his breath and lets it out slowly. It can’t mean anything. It can’t, because that would mean that the feeling dragging itself up through Martin’s belly and into his chest is hope, and that’s something he can’t afford anymore. It can’t, because - because -  

The tape whines with static, and when Martin turns his head Peter is standing at his shoulder, looking affable as always. Martin’s throat tightens. Peter’s gaze darts to the tape recorder, then back to Martin. He smiles, and it deepens the laughter lines on his face without coming near his eyes.

“Well,” Peter says, “I see you’ve heard the news.”

*

“You, uh, won’t have heard the news,” Martin says. “They found Tim. His - his body.”

Jon doesn’t reply, of course. Martin’s grown almost used to these one-sided conversations over the past few weeks. Just as he’s almost got used to how small Jon looks, lying in the hospital bed. Martin is well aware that he’s both taller and bigger than Jon, but Jon’s always had something larger than life about him, an intense, animated energy that it hurts to see him without. Martin doesn’t let himself think how close to dead Jon looks.

“It’s not like I didn’t know already,” he continues. “But, you know, there’s always a little bit of you that keeps hoping? When they didn’t find him, I thought maybe - anyway. Basira’s still holding out hope for Daisy too, I think. They haven’t found her yet.” 

Basira’s been like a ghost around the Archives since the world didn’t end. Walking around with a hollow, closed off expression and a grim purpose to her stride. Researching more intently than ever, devouring books and cases and supplements, as if driven to do so. Melanie says she’s refusing the face the truth. Melanie - well, Melanie loses her temper a lot, these days, when she doesn’t like what people are doing.

“The funeral’s on Thursday. We, uh, we’re getting the day off for it. Peter Lukas sent out an email, said anyone who wanted to go could take the day. He’s - he’s still at the Institute. Sort of. I mean, nobody’s seen him, since the first day he took over. Nobody’s seen him at all. Except, umm…”

Martin can hear the tremor in his own voice, his hands twisting together nervously in his lap. Peter Lukas scares him, because Martin’s read about what kind of monster he is, and because he’s never actually done anything outwardly threatening. Each time Martin’s met him, he’s smiled, and made friendly conversation, and Martin’s felt like he’s having a nice chat with a shark as it circles him. Even worse, Peter seems to have taken an interest in Martin, which Martin is painfully aware of, but hasn’t verbalized to anyone. If he doesn’t say it out loud, it seems less real.

“I wish - I really wish you were here,” he tells Jon. “I don’t know what you’d do, it’s not like you’re - James Bond, or something. But I know you’d think of something. At least it’d be less weird. It - it doesn’t feel right, being at the Archives without you and Tim. And Sasha. I - I miss the way things were, back at the start? I mean yeah, you were a bit of a prat sometimes, and Sasha always said you didn’t have the first clue how to run an archive, but it was - it was nice. Nothing was trying to kill us. And now Tim’s dead, and Sasha, and you’re - ”

Back when he was little, before she got sick, Martin’s mum used to say that when things got really bad, so bad you didn’t think you could bear it, you could allow yourself two minutes to cry. Just two minutes, mind, anything more than that is wallowing. Two minutes, and then you pull yourself together and carry on with what needs doing.

Two minutes later, Martin drags the heels of his hands across his eyes and sniffs hard.

“It’s fine,” he says. “We’ll figure it out, like we always do. But we need you back, Jon. So you need to try, please.”

*

Jon is back. Jon is awake, alive, and it’s good. Martin knows that it is, but he can’t let himself feel it. Can’t let himself think about how Jon was never going to wake up again, how he finally let go of that hope, except now Jon is walking around the Institute, so near that Martin could just...see him. Talk to him.

“This doesn’t change anything,” Peter tells him, thoroughly reasonable. “The Institute is still in danger, and Jon coming back doesn’t change that. It might even make it worse. We need to keep on doing what we’re doing.”

“I know,” Martin says sullenly, as if he hadn’t almost run straight downstairs at the first click of the tape recorder. As if it hadn’t taken Peter to remind him why he can’t, now more than ever.

“You can’t talk to him,” Peter continues in a gentle tone. “You know that, don’t you Martin? He won’t understand what we’re doing, and he’ll try to stop you, and then where will we be?”

“I know,” Martin repeats, and he does. It doesn’t mean he has to like it, though. Peter smiles at him, and his hand comes to rest firmly on Martin’s shoulder, squeezes a little in a way that Martin hates to admit he finds reassuring.

“Hey,” Peter says, “Chin up. It’ll all be worth it, in the end."

Martin does all he can. He stays clear. Pushes away everything he feels when he thinks about Jon, lets it be swallowed up into the gray like Peter’s been teaching him. It gets so he scarcely feels anything at all, and Peter nods with satisfaction and tells him he's doing brilliantly.

Jon doesn't make it easy, of course. He turns up, and keeps turning up, keeps catching Martin in the corridor or cornering him in the library. Keeps talking to him with a sort of painfully awkward sincerity that makes Martin’s heart catch in his throat. Martin stumbles away from their encounters with his head reeling and his heart racing, and it takes long hours for him to lose himself in vacant dullness again.

Martin only makes the mistake of going to the Archives once. One night, when the canteen is shut and it’s far too late for anyone to be around, he sneaks down to make tea in their kitchen. He’s done it before, when he's sure Basira’s sleeping and Melanie’s gone off to wherever she holes up at night, and it's always been fine. It’s fine.

This time, though, the light is on in Jon’s office. Martin dithers in the stairwell for a minute, and then decides to risk it. It’ll be all right as long as he’s quiet, he decides. Ignores the little voice in the back of his head saying you want him to notice, don’t you? Martin doesn’t, honestly, he just - really needs a cup of tea.

He makes his tea quickly and carefully, not clinking spoons or slamming the fridge door. He turns with cup in hand, and almost jumps out of his skin when he sees Jon standing there, looking at him with bleary eyes and a bewildered expression.

“Martin?” he says, voice hazy with sleep. He must have dozed off in his office, and Martin feels a surge of protectiveness at his vulnerability. More than anything, he wants to keep Jon safe, but these days that seems to mean hurting him.

“Hi Jon,” he says quietly, trying to sound as if this is all perfectly normal. “I was just, uh, just getting some tea. I’ll get out of your way now." 

He holds the mug up in front of him like a totem, proof that he was here for a reason. Jon blinks at him, seeming still not entirely awake, and then takes a step forward into his space.

“You don’t need to go,” he says. His hand comes up to grasp at Martin’s arm, just above the wrist, and every nerve in Martin’s body is instantly focused on that single point of contact. He hears himself make a small, involuntary sound. 

“Please, just talk to me,” says Jon, and there is nothing Martin wants to do more. Instead, he reluctantly pulls his arm away. Jon sways towards him, and for half a second Martin is sure Jon’s about to hug him or something. His heart stutters frantically. But Jon releases his arm and rocks back onto his heels.

“I have to go,” Martin says, barely able to speak past the lump in his throat. Jon looks away.

“Right,” he says. Martin flees past him, all the way back up to the second floor with his pulse pounding, his breath coming quick. He sits there for a long time while his untouched tea goes cold on the desk, trying to compose himself. Trying to think what he’ll tell Peter about this latest lapse. This latest failure.

The next day he gets an electric kettle for his office.

*

It was in hospitals that Martin first picked up the habit of making tea as an antidote to distress. The nurses were always kind to him, when he was a kid, and sometimes when he’d been waiting a long time, one of them would bring him a cup.

“Save you going to the canteen,” they would say, smiling kindly. “In case there’s any news of your mum.” And Martin would mumble a thank you, trying to avoid their sympathetic eyes. Sometimes there would be biscuits.

He’s not sure why he’s thinking of this now, because the private hospital Jon’s at is a lot nicer than any his mum ever stayed in, and the nurses here are not nearly so friendly. Always look askance at his Magnus Institute ID, as if unhappy at any reminder of their unusual patient.

They never enforce visiting hours on him, though, so it’s not all bad. It means that he can see Jon as soon as he gets back to London, even though it's far too late. Martin needs to see him. Needs to talk to him, because there isn’t anyone else. He's aware how pathetic it is, that the only person he can talk to is his comatose boss, but that doesn’t change the fact that he needs to.

Nothing’s felt real, is the problem. Not for the past couple of weeks. Since he got the call to tell him they were beginning palliative care for his mum. That he should prepare for the worst.

“Can I - do you think she’ll see me if I visit?” he had asked the care home administrator when she phoned. She paused for a moment, then let out a soft breath that might have been a sigh.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “But she’s adamant that her visitation directives stand.”

“Right,” said Martin. “Of course. No problem.”

It still didn’t feel real when the end finally came. They let him in to see her before the funeral director arrived, and he didn’t recognize the frail, shriveled figure in the bed, so much smaller than his mum had ever been. He took her cold hand in his, and tried to feel something, but it was like everything in him had been deadened. Even at the funeral he was dry eyed and numb, like he was watching from a distance. Like this was happening to somebody else.   

Sitting by Jon’s bed, wrung out and exhausted, he still doesn’t know how to feel.

“Sorry I haven’t been to see you for a while,” he tells Jon. “It’s, uh, it’s been a busy week. My - my mum died.”

And somehow, after everything, telling Jon is what makes it feel real. Maybe it’s because Martin can imagine Jon’s exact response, some sort of awkward platitude that sounds stuffy and insincere, but that is honestly Jon doing his best. Martin’s never minded when Jon’s attempts at sincerity fall flat. The fact that he tries, that he’s been trying, means everything.

Right now he’d happily take a stilted condolence, or even a lecture about proper filing, anything just to hear Jon’s voice. They wouldn’t have to talk about anything, even. Just hearing him would be enough. Anything so Martin could believe that he hasn’t quite lost everything.

“So, uh, yeah,” he says, his voice no more than a choked whisper, but his eyes still dry. “That’s all there is to say about that, I suppose.”

*

Martin finds the tape on his desk Monday lunchtime, half hidden among the clutter. He has no idea how long it’s been there - it wasn’t there when he left Friday evening, he’s almost sure. He also doesn’t know how Jon found this office, but he recognizes the impatient, spiky handwriting on the label. It says:

MARTIN

That’s all. Nothing else. Apprehension uncoils in Martin’s belly. Jon hasn’t found him, not since Martin asked. This could just be a way to sidestep that, but it doesn’t feel like it. Martin thinks about the last time Jon tried to talk to him. About the way he’d said Daisy might be alive, that familiar determined look on his face.

He shouldn’t listen to this. He doesn’t need Peter here to remind him that any form of contact is harmful to his progress. That any emotional connection is a step backwards. He can’t listen to it.

He finds a tape recorder in the desk drawer; there’s always one around somewhere. Slots the tape in, glancing over his shoulder as it clicks into place. As if Peter might be standing right there. As if Peter doesn’t know everything he does in any case, and Martin is well aware of what Peter will think of this.

He presses play.

“Martin...” Jon’s voice is low, something pained in it. “I, uh, I’m sorry, to contact you like this. I know, you asked me not to find you, but I - I thought this might be okay. I don’t imagine you’ll listen to this until you’ve finished - whatever it is that you’re doing, in any case. I don’t know if you’ll listen to it at all, maybe you’ll just throw it away, but I - I needed to do this anyway.”

Martin’s heart is in his throat, and god, how does Jon do this to him? He’s been feeling so much less, his emotions comfortably flattened until even the loneliness barely hurts anymore, and then this.

“I thought about leaving this with Melanie, asking her to get it to you if - if it was...necessary. But, uh, I’m not sure she’d be able to find you. It’s fine. If everything works out, this will just be something silly and melodramatic that you get to tease me about.”

He laughs shakily, and Martin feels his stomach dropping into his shoes. This sounds terribly like a just in case message, the sort of message you leave someone when you think you might not get the chance to leave another.

“I, uh, I’m going to save Daisy. Or to try, at least. Into the coffin - you know, the one from the statements? It belongs to the Buried, and she’s trapped in there. I’m going to get her out. I - I have a plan, something I think will work. It will work,” he says firmly. “I’m...confident. But, there’s never a way to be a hundred percent sure, is there? So that’s why…”

If there's any more to the message Martin doesn’t hear it, is on his feet and running out of the room before he even realizes he’s moving. He dashes down the corridors, his breath rasping in his ears, taking the stairs so fast he almost loses his footing more than once. So panicked he forgets not to be noticed, Institute staff give him startled looks as he pushes past them.

He bursts into the Archives and heads for Jon’s office. Nobody is in there. A large, pale yellow coffin sits against one wall, its chains lying undone on the floor. The desk is occupied by a single tape recorder and - is that a bone? God, what has Jon done?

Martin’s legs almost give way at the realization that he’s too late. Jon’s gone into that - that thing. He can’t breathe. He leans against the wall and slides down until he’s sitting on the floor, struggling for air. He can’t -

He has to go in after Jon. Of course he can’t go in after Jon. Stupid, stupid, ridiculous thought. If Jon can’t make it out, how on earth would he manage? He’d just get himself stuck, be another person who needs saving. All he can do is wait and hope. Useless, just like he’s always been, like he was when his mum got sick, and when his dad left. Like he was in the tunnels, and at Jon’s bedside, and when the Flesh came. How is he supposed to save everyone when he can’t even protect the one person he loves most?

All Martin can do is wait, so he does. He doesn’t know how long. He gets thirsty after a while, but a nice thing about the Lonely is that it saps away physical sensation as easily as emotion. Martin sinks himself down into it until he no longer feels the dryness of his throat.

At one point Melanie comes in, and doesn’t notice him. She looks at the coffin, and at the bone on the desk. Picks up the tape recorder and puts it down again. Shakes her head with a frustrated sigh, then stalks out of the room through a door that wasn’t there before.

He isn’t sure when the tape recorders start appearing. Martin doesn’t notice them at first, all his attention fixed on the coffin. But then his foot nudges up against something solid, and he glances down to see a tape recorder sitting by his shoe. There is another recorder right beside it, another and another and another, carpeting the floor. The desk and shelves are covered too, recorders blooming across every flat surface, tumbling out of the doorway into the Archives proper.

The tape recorders are silent and still, and Martin can’t tell if they’re waiting, or mourning.

He can’t tell which he’s doing either.

*

“Waiting to go in?” Georgie asks, and slumps down in the chair beside him.

“They’re doing tests,” Martin says, though he doesn’t know why they bother. It’s been three months, and nothing’s changed. No better, and no worse, although Martin can’t really imagine what worse would look like. The doctors feel the need to keep prodding, still, as if there’s a medical mystery here they can solve.

“Could be a bit of a wait then,” Georgie says, making a face. “Good thing I didn’t bring the Admiral this time.”

Martin met Georgie the second week Jon was in hospital. He instantly resented her leather jacket and rows of piercings, her effortless coolness. The fact that when he walked in she was holding Jon’s hand, easily, as if it was no big deal. That resentment was impossible to hold onto once he actually spoke with her, because she was kind and funny and whip smart, and because she’s the only other person who cares enough to visit Jon regularly. They’ve become - not exactly friends, but at least friendly.

Martin can’t mention Jon in the Archives these days. Even his name is enough to set Melanie off. It’s nice talking to Georgie, who has all sorts of stories about Jon’s university days and who occasionally smuggles her cat into Jon’s room in an oversized tote bag. Who never questions Martin’s presence, his right to be here.

The fact is, visiting Jon is the last strand of hope that Martin is clinging to. Things are bad at the Archives, shadowed figures lingering in the street outside and the wide, toothy grins he’s been getting on the Tube. They’re holding things together, best they can, but it’s bad. Bad enough that Martin’s been considering Peter Lukas’ proposal.

It terrifies him. Martin can admit that easily, because he knows he’s not brave. Timid, his mum used to call him in a tone that was half sympathetic of his flaws and half exasperated at him for not trying harder. He’s always liked to think that he’d be brave when it matters, though. When people really need him to be.

What Peter Lukas is proposing, it’s not something anyone would consider, if they had any other options. But Martin is very short on other options these days.

If Jon can just wake up, though. Just come back to - to the Archives. Maybe they can find another way to keep everyone safe. That’s Martin’s hope, a thin and fragile thread that keeps him hanging on. Keeps him from saying yes to Peter.

“I’m glad you’re still visiting him,” Georgie tells him. “It’s not as if he knows we’re here, but it’d be a bit sad if he was on his own all the time. And he’d appreciate it if he knew. Not that he’d ever say anything, great lump that he is.”

Her voice is warm with easy affection, and Martin is so envious in that moment he feels sick. Because Georgie has can be so casually affectionate. She has that right. She’s Jon’s friend, and he’s just a - a colleague. Probably the last visitor Jon would want to be stuck with, if he had the choice. But he keeps visiting, because Jon doesn’t have anyone other than him and Georgie, and because Martin can’t bear the thought of not seeing him.

Maybe it makes Martin a coward, holding out for Jon to come back. If it does, then so be it. He’ll wait for Jon as long as there’s any chance at all. He’d wait for Jon forever.

*

There is a loud chorus of clicks and all the tape recorders switch on at once.

Martin jumps, so used to the silence submerging him that he’s almost forgotten sound exists. A babble of voices starts spilling out of the tapes, dozens of them talking over and across each other, pleading and scared and determined, a cacophony of terrible truths. Martin’s breath stalls, and something rises up inside him that might be hope. Another thing he’s almost forgotten.

He shrinks into a corner as Basira storms into the room, wearing a coat and looking rumpled and travel worn. Wills himself backwards into the fog, unnoticeable. It’s hardly necessary, though, because Basira’s got eyes for nothing but the coffin, as the lid thunks open and Daisy drags herself over the edge, collapses onto the carpet of tape recorders.

Jon pulls himself out after her, looking exhausted, his clothes torn and smeared with soil and blood. He climbs out and stands up slowly, swaying on his feet. Shuts the coffin lid and sits down on it thoughtlessly, while Basira moves to Daisy’s side. His gaze moves slowly around the room, staring in astonishment at the tape recorders, at the plethora of voices pouring out of them.

And then somehow, his gaze lands on Martin and catches. His eyes widen, and his mouth starts to open, shaping Martin’s name.

Martin shakes his head frantically. He can’t, he can’t, if Jon talks to him right now his control will fail entirely. He can’t, and it seems like Jon understands. His mouth shuts, and he gives a tiny, resigned nod. Martin pulls himself upright and stumbles out of the room on cramped, aching legs, still unnoticed by anyone else. Jon’s eyes follow him as he leaves, but he doesn’t say anything.

Martin just about makes it home, shaky and chilled to the bone from so long immersed in the Lonely. He takes a scalding hot shower, and only then does he look at his phone and realize it’s Tuesday morning. He was in Jon’s office for the better part of a day. God, how long was Jon in the coffin for? Martin feels his breath catching again, and forces himself to calm down.  

Jon is okay. Jon is okay, but he might not have been. He might have died, or worse, and there was nothing Martin could do to save him. Useless, he thinks. Everything he’s done to protect Jon, to protect all of them, it’s all pointless if it’s too late. He can’t let it be too late.

He doesn't go back in until the next day. Peter is waiting for him, wearing an expression of mild disappointment.

“What happened, Martin?” he asks, as if he doesn’t already know. Martin ignores the question, asks his own instead.

“Is there a way to make it happen faster?” He can hear the tremor in his own voice. Peter tilts his head to one side, curious.

“Is that what you want? You don’t sound very sure.”

“It’s what I need,” Martin says, firmly. “It’s - I can’t wait anymore. I need them to be safe.”

“Him to be safe, you mean,” says Peter. Martin shrugs angrily.

“So what?” he says, “Does it matter why? You get what you want all the same. So, is there a way?”

“There’s a way,” Peter tells him. “But you might not like it much.”

It doesn’t matter if he likes it. What matters is keeping Jon safe. Keeping them all safe. It’s the only thing he can do for them, the only way he can help. 

“I’m ready,” Martin says, and Peter smiles. Steps forward and places both hands on Martin's shoulders, heavy and inevitable. His hands are very cold, and Martin feels the gray fog rising up around him, thicker than it’s ever been, loneliness and despair washing over him in waves. He closes his eyes, and lets himself succumb.

*

After the Flesh, Martin helps Basira clean the blood off everything. She has a contact that’s already removed the...remains, but the blood and the smell cling everywhere. Basira’s cheekbone is swollen and discolored, and she winces a little when she stretches a certain way. Martin can’t look her in the eye.

“It’s all right,” Basira tells him. “It was the right thing to do, getting out. I would’ve done the same if they didn’t hem me in.”

Martin appreciates the kindness, but he can’t feel even a little absolved, shame burrowing through the back of his skull. He left her. Left them both. Just like he left Tim and Jon, that time in the tunnels, and they’d both nearly died of the Hive. Both have - had - the scars to show for it. Basira would have died, if it wasn’t for Melanie, facing down Jared Hopworth with only a knife and her ferocity. And what did he do? He ran away.

He can’t help them. He’s not clever like Basira or strong like Melanie, doesn’t have contacts or skills or education. All he’s good for is making the tea and clearing up the blood. He’s been trying to hang onto that last thread of hope, that Jon will come back, and things will be okay, but it’s more difficult every day. 

Even more difficult with Peter Lukas in his ear, telling him that Jon’s not going to wake up, that this is what happens when someone who should die, can’t. That the rest of them are still in terrible danger, and Martin’s the only one who can stand in the way of it. That it’s the only way.

Peter finds him later, the way Peter always finds him when he's feeling most miserable. He smiles sympathetically at Martin, who is still blood stained and racked with guilt.

"I hate to say I told you so," he says kindly. "But I did warn you, Martin. Have you thought any more about my offer?"

"I - isn't there any other way?" Martin asks, and he can hear the pleading note in his voice, the whiny tone he hates. Peter shakes his head sadly.

"I wish I could say there was, but I'd just be giving you false hope. And I respect you too much for that."

"But if Jon wakes up - " Martin begins, and Peter sighs. Not angry, just disappointed at Martin's refusal to see sense. 

“If anything was going to wake Jon up, don’t you think the Archives getting attacked would do it?” he says, and his tone is so reasonable, Martin can’t deny it. “You need to decide what you’re going to do, Martin. Because this is just the beginning of it. It’ll only get worse from here.”

That evening Martin goes and visits Jon, and knows that Peter is right. That even if Peter is wrong about Jon waking up, even if there’s some chance, it’s not one Martin can wait for anymore. Jon wouldn’t wait. Jon would do what needs to be done to keep people safe, and how can Martin do any less?

He’d wait for Jon forever, if it was just him. But it isn’t, is it? It’s Basira, and Melanie, and the Institute. Maybe everyone.

The knowledge of what he needs to do sits like a stone in his chest.

He stays there for a long time, looking at Jon’s face, committing every detail to memory. He won’t come back anymore, he knows. He won’t be able to, with what he needs to do, and if Peter’s right, then afterwards he - he won’t want to.

Martin can’t even imagine what that feels like, not wanting to see Jon. He’s wanted to see Jon every day for the past three years. He wants to see Jon every day for the rest of his life. The thought that he won’t - it feels like a death. It feels like standing at a graveside, watching the coffin being lowered into the ground on all his hopes.

This is the last time, and Martin is weak. He has no right, but he reaches out a hand and lays it over Jon’s. Jon’s hand is limp, the bones too prominent against Martin’s palm, but he holds onto it for a long moment while his heart aches in his chest, tight and painful. Runs a thumb over the curve of Jon’s wrist, squeezes carefully, then lets go.

“Bye Jon,” he says. “Sleep well.”

*

Martin has no idea how long he’s been here. There is no day or night in the Lonely, no way to measure time’s passage, when all the clocks stand still and the sky remains a flat, constant gray. He doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t feel hunger or thirst, and a small part of him wonders if he could starve to death in here without even realizing it. He doesn’t think Peter would let him die, though. Not for now, at least.

Nothing is alive here but him. The closest Martin’s found is a dead spider in his office, dry and brittle with its legs curled up. He can’t help wondering if it means something, because the spiders have always been around, haven’t they? He knows Peter doesn’t like them. 

Everything feels simpler here. The constant despair of isolation flattens everything else out. All his emotions feel like fading echoes of themselves, like that part of him might die away completely, if he stays here long enough. And, well, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? 

He can’t leave the Institute, since the streets outside vanish into fog after a few meters, and he doesn’t want to imagine what might lie beyond. But he keeps busy. The paperwork keeps turning up, because apparently being here doesn’t preclude him from doing the work Peter doesn’t want to. He doesn’t have a computer, though, so he has to do everything by hand. It’s time consuming, but time is something he’s not short of.

Martin tries to keep to a routine. Routine is good for mental health, although he's not sure that concept applies here. He tries to take a break from work every few hours, as best he can estimate, get up and stretch his legs. He walks around the building, looking out different windows at the fog, scanning for any movement. There's never any, of course. He wanders through the different Institute departments, identifying any changes that have happened since last time he was there. Trying to figure out why things are the way they are, in this place.

Furniture is constant here, and doors and walls, but objects are not. Electronics don’t seem to exist at all. Other items - pencils and books and people’s jackets - seem transient, appearing and disappearing over time. It’s strange, walking into the library to see all the shelves empty, only a single book lying open on a desk where someone’s left it. It'll be gone when he comes back later.

At first Martin thinks the items he sees are ones that have been neglected, forgotten and fallen through to this liminal space. He revises that theory after a while. Instead, he thinks, it is objects that people have been using, paying attention to, that have enough weight to appear here. Their focused reality bleeding through into this unreality.

He’s not sure what it means, that there is a cassette tape in his desk drawer that never goes away. Every so often he takes it out and looks at it, at his name written on the label. Holds it in his hands, carefully. He knows it was important, but he can’t feel why anymore. Can’t quite remember what Jon’s voice sounded like, or what he said.

There are no tape recorders here that he could play it with. That’s probably for the best.

*

Martin was nine years old when his dad left.

He didn’t understand right away. He knew his dad wasn’t home, and that his mum was upset, but he didn’t know why. He was afraid to ask. His mum spent those days crying, and shouted at him when he made too much noise. He walked around with a tight, scary feeling in his chest, the knowledge that something was wrong that nobody had bothered to explain to him yet.

It took a week for him to screw up the courage to ask. His mum’s face went hard and sharp, as if she was angry at him for something. As if he’d done something wrong. He always seemed to be doing something wrong lately.

“He’s gone,” she told him bluntly. “And he’s not coming back, so don’t ask. I don’t want to hear another word about it, all right? It’s just us now.”

She hugged him, then. Pulled him close against her chest, where he could hear the rattling of her breath, the cough that never seemed to go away these days. Her fingers dug too hard into his back, but Martin didn’t squirm. Because it was his mum, and he loved her, and he would have done anything to stop her from being sad.

After a while his mum went to have a lie down, and Martin sat in the kitchen with his eyes stinging and a pit in his stomach that all his happiness seemed to have dropped into. He still didn’t really understand, but he knew, and it hurt more than the worst stomach ache he’d ever had.

That was the first Martin knew about loss. He’s learned a lot more about it since. Enough to know that he doesn’t want to lose anyone again. Enough to know that he’ll do anything to protect who he cares about.

*

Martin avoids the Archives for a long time. He’s not really sure why. He can’t avoid it forever, though, because as long as he does he’s giving the Archives power over him. Holding onto everything he’s felt down there, the fear and the grief and the longing. If he’s going to save everyone, he has to give all of that away to this place, let it hollow him out entirely. He has to be able to go to the Archives, and feel nothing.

He's nervous when he finally decides to go down there, as if he might run into someone. Silly, really. It’s the most emotion he’s felt in a while, though, which just proves that he needs to do this. He takes time to focus, lets the leaden despair of isolation wash over him, suffuse him. Lets it displace everything else.

He takes the cassette tape out of the desk and tucks it into his pocket. It’ll be better this way. Cleaner, when he finally accepts that he’s not returning from this.

Martin takes the stairs slowly, that odd, apprehensive feeling still bleeding through the gray. He does his best to ignore it. The Archives are empty of course, not only of people but of documents, the shelves standing as bare as the library’s. There are a couple of folders sitting on Basira’s desk, but otherwise nothing. It’s a strange sight.

Martin makes his way past the rows of empty shelves to Jon’s office. The door is shut, and he resists the urge to knock. He knows there’s nobody in there. He shouldn’t feel like he’s about to open the door and see Jon, poring over some statement, lost in thought and oblivious to his presence, and yet he is somehow for an instant certain that’s what’s about to happen. He turns the doorknob and pushes it open and -

An empty room, empty shelves, a chair and a desk and -

And a tape recorder. Martin feels a startled pang in his chest, and wills it away, breathing slowly. It’s just a tape recorder. Jon’s been working in here recently, reading a statement. That’s why it’s here. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not appeared here specifically for his attention.

Martin takes the cassette out of his pocket. Holds it in his hand for a long moment, his fingers gripping the plastic tightly. Then he walks forward, determined, and sets it down on the desk by the tape recorder. He steps back out of the office before he can change his mind and leans against the doorframe, trying to damp down the feeling of loss that twists through him. He’s done what he needs to. It hurts, and the very fact that it does tells him it was necessary. He needs to put this behind him, if he’s going to save everyone, save Jon. It’s worth it.

A sound comes from behind him. The first sound he’s heard in this place that wasn’t made by him, and his heart stops.

Click.

He turns. 

“Martin...” says Jon, in that low, pained tone, and Martin instantly remembers the contents of the tape. The fear and alarm that had surged through him when he heard it. Jon could be right in the room with him, telling Martin how he’s sorry to contact him, and he hopes it won’t be necessary. That he’s going to save Daisy, but nothing is a hundred percent certain, so that’s why…

Martin is frozen in place. It’s just a couple of steps across Jon’s office and he could turn it off, could end this. But he can’t move, and the tape continues, past what he heard the last time, Jon’s voice speaking to him across some vast chasm, so distant and so near at once.

“I know what you’re doing is important. You believe that it is, and I - I trust you. I haven’t told you that before, but I do. I just wish you could know that you’re not alone. That you don’t have to carry all this by yourself. It’s - not good, trying to do everything alone. Trust me, I know.” He gives a dry, shaky laugh. “I - I’d do anything to help you, if you’d let me. If it meant you’d come back.”

Martin’s heart is hammering frantically in his rib cage. He can’t breathe properly. It feels like panic, dragging him out of the fog and back into himself with a violence that is startling. This isn’t - this isn’t right. He can’t do this. He can’t let himself -

“I know I haven’t always been - easy, to be around. That’s probably an understatement.” That shaky laugh again. “I’ve spent a lot of the last few years paranoid and afraid, and I’m not exactly great with people in the first place. I’m not making excuses, or trying to, to shirk responsibility for my behavior, I just - “ Jon sighs.

“I’m sorry, is what I’m trying to say. About that, and - and about a lot of things. You said before that we’d have a chance to talk properly if the world didn’t end, and it didn’t, but we - well, here we are. I hope - I hope this tape isn’t necessary. I hope I can find Daisy, and bring us both back. I - I hope we get to have that talk.”

Martin’s vision mists over and it takes a moment before he realizes he’s crying. He hasn't cried in a long time, not even when his mum died. Not since he asked Jon to come back to them, to please just try. Something sharp and heavy is tearing through his chest, and it’s been so long, he can’t tell if it’s fear or grief or desperate hope. It hurts.

“I miss you, Martin. I know I already said it, and I know I don’t have any right to - to - well. I just, wanted to say it, clearly. I miss you. Not because Basira’s away and I’m lonely. Because it’s you, and you’re not here. I’ve been...thinking about it, a lot.”

Jon’s voice cracks, and he pauses. Through the blur of tears Martin can scarcely see Jon’s office anymore. But it looks like - it looks almost like there’s a figure, sitting at Jon’s desk.  Just a vague shape, gray and hazy. Martin takes in a shuddering breath, and Jon continues, his voice quiet and aching:

“I’ve - I’ve always been afraid of losing people. So afraid that I stopped trying, for a long time. If I didn’t have anyone, then I couldn’t lose them. It, uh, it turns out it doesn’t work like that. Because I lost you anyway, and it hurt so much more than if I’d just - Well, I just wish I’d understood that sooner. I - that’s all, I think. Uh, recording ends.”

The tape clicks off, and it’s like everything snaps into focus with that sound, and Martin can see Jon. Sitting at his desk. Hunched over the recorder with his finger on the button, staring at it. He looks tired, and so terribly sad.

A sob tears itself out of Martin’s throat at the sight of him, his chest wrenched through with pain he didn’t think he could feel anymore. Jon’s head turns towards him and his eyebrows knit together as if he’s searching for something. His gaze almost catches on Martin before sliding off him.

“Martin?” he asks tentatively, and Martin holds his breath, balanced on a knife edge. If he takes one step forward, he knows, Jon will see him. He's not sure how he knows, but he has never been so certain of anything. And if he steps back…

He can feel the fog tugging at his heels, trying to draw him back into familiar numb despair of the Lonely. Can almost hear Peter’s voice in his head, give it all up, it’s the only way to keep them safe.

Martin would do anything to keep Jon safe. To stop from losing the people he cares about. And he’s believed it for so long, that this is the only way, that nobody can help and no one would understand. Except Jon said I’d do anything to help you, and I trust you, and you’re not alone, and it sounded like the truth.

Except Jon came back, after Martin gave up on him. Martin buried Jon in his heart, but Jon came back. He came back from death, and from the coffin, and he is here, now, reaching for Martin. Telling him I miss you and hurting from the loss of him.

Martin has lost so much, but it seems he’s never quite managed to lose all his hope. Kept it somewhere deep inside himself, buried but not dead, and now it’s clawing up through his chest, bright and painful and fierce. He takes in a deep breath, and steps forward.

Jon’s eyes fix on him, and he stands up slowly, carefully, as if afraid Martin will disappear again. Martin won’t. Martin’s lost so much, he won’t lose this too, not without at least trying to hold onto it.

“Martin...” says Jon, soft and wondering. Martin smiles at him, through the tears still hazing his vision. 

“Hi Jon,” he says. “Can we talk?”