And here, at the end of all things, nobody is dead. Everyone is dying, constantly and painfully, but nobody is dead.
When Jon was four his mother died. He remembers her in photographs, pictures of a family holiday in Ireland, navy coats and wellington boots and smiles, photos of family parties and paper party hats and baby bottles lined up on the countertop, snaps of her from the back and her from the front and her young and windswept, smiling all the time, posing with a baby - and sometimes, a toddler - in her arms like there was nowhere else she’d rather be. There are pictures of her in the clinic, too, a thin blue cloth wrapped around her head, but still she’s smiling. Her skin is just draped over her bones. The pictures are all yellowy the way pictures always are when they’re taken in the eighties, and some of them are blotchy where they didn’t develop right because Jon’s grandmother didn’t know how to use a camera and was too stubborn to ask.
When he was four his mother died. There are pictures of that, too. A small, solemn child holding his grandmother’s hand, squinting out at the world because nobody had realised yet how bad his vision was, waiting for someone to tell him it was all a joke.
Nobody did. It wasn't.
Jon remembers being a difficult child, and later a quiet teenager. He remembers it mostly in anecdotes, his grandmother telling people over the phone that she never really thought of herself as a hero, taking in Maya and Colin's little boy, but it was so dreadfully difficult after she was lost, and Jon was such a troubled child. Jon thought for quite some time that his mum had just forgotten how to get home from work, and she was lost, and when he was six or seven he drew a map - or as much of a map as a child can manage - and showed it to his grandmother, to see if she thought it was good enough to get his mum home. X marks the spot, he had written in crayon. And then a treasure chest with a stick figure emerging, helpfully labelled mum! His grandmother took it and went to her room, and Jon heard her crying late, late into the night.
He packed his own lunch for school the next morning. Crisps and three apples and a penguin bar with a joke that he memorized and dutifully recited to his teacher when he got into class off the bus. She smiled.
His grandmother picked him up that afternoon, and they never talked about it again.
He was eight or nine, shortly after the incident with the book, when he realised once and for all that she wasn’t coming back. She wasn’t lost, or gone, or away. She was just dead. His mother hurt a lot more than his father, who he had never ever really thought about as someone who existed - he was in all the photographs, or at least, half of them, but Jon has no memory of him beyond someone in the background. He fades away compared to his mother, who herself is now faded, like wallpaper that hasn’t been replaced in far too many years.
But she wasn’t coming back, and neither was he. Neither was Daniel. Thomas. Michael. Whatever his name had been.
Jon read books he shouldn’t have, and he knows what happens to grandmothers in books. They last just long enough to give the main character something to talk about, and somewhere to live before he can fend for himself, and then they die and the funeral scene is very sad and he must Dick-Whittington his way to London, everything he owns in a sack slung over his shoulder, to make his fortune and find a wife and save the world. When he was eleven or twelve he used to want to be turned into a mouse, like the little boy who hunted witches, so he would only live five years after, and die beside his grandmother.
Not that he ever told her that. Jon loved his grandmother desperately, terribly so, and didn’t really care that she treated him like a pleasant, but faintly annoying puppy. To be indulged, yes, but to be ignored when he was getting in the way.
But there wasn’t exactly anyone else, was there?
He wondered with obsessive frenzy about her death. He wondered what it would be. His father fell from the roof of a house he was re-tiling, and died on impact - totally painless, didn’t feel a thing - if you believe the paramedics. His mother died during a routine surgery to try and remove part of the cancerous growths that grew within her. What would it be?
Nobody really dies of old age, after all, but of failure of one organ or another, or exhaustion of the body that carries them so long. His grandmother was eighty-one when he was twelve, and he privately thought that if she made it to see him to university he’d be happy - she’d have lived long enough then to Dick Whittington him, and he could go to London with his pack on his back and make a living, or something, or something, or something. It was all quite simple when he was twelve.
He tells all this to Martin, but only when Martin is sleeping, in fitful bursts with his head pillowed on Jon’s thigh, his face drawn in whatever dreams the Lonely left him with when he escaped it. The apocalypse rages on all around them, and people never stop screaming, but Martin is sleeping and Jon just can’t stop talking.
But quietly. Always quietly.
He doesn’t want Martin to worry, after all.
“Gertrude Robinson is dead, but we knew that already,” Tim says, the day they’re allowed back into work. He and Jon are covered in healed pockmarks and half-healed wounds still oozing clear liquid, patched over with the sort of gauze that manages to make everything look three times worse. Martin is jumpy, flinching at every small movement and flicker in the shadows, and Sasha is quiet, her dark eyes flickering from one to the other as though she’s trying to work something out, some spell she hasn’t quite got a handle on yet.
“It’s one thing to know and one thing to see,” says Martin softly. “I - and we all. We all - she is definitely dead, isn’t she?”
Jon laughs humourlessly. “Worms are one thing, but I don’t think anything paranormal was at play with Gertrude’s body - just plain and simple murder. But who?”
“Elias,” Tim says. The joke bobs in the air for half a second and then sinks, with a crash, to the floor. “Christ, I don’t know. None of us.”
Jon can’t meet any of their eyes, suddenly, and twitches his gaze upwards to stare at the mould in the corner of the little office room. It’s been there ever since he’s worked here, and probably moved in when they were laying the foundations - the sort of rot that crawls into buildings and sits there until they fall down, smug in the knowledge it will outlast anything important that happens under it. None of us. He can’t stop thinking about the body, about the shock on Gertrude’s skin. She was killed by someone she knew - it was shock, but not surprise, and didn’t Gertrude work with - well, with everyone in the room apart from him? Jon was the newest researcher, shunted from the library to the archives in those confused few months between the disappearance of Gertrude and the appointment of a new Head Archivist. What with one thing and another he never even met the woman.
Did she know she was going to die, before it happened?
No. Wrong question.
How soon before she died did she see it coming?
He wonders if it had anything to do with the archives, but then, of course it did. It always does.
He wonders how soon he’ll see his own coming, and whether he’ll be able to do anything to stop it, and whether he’ll want to when it comes.
She died when he was nineteen, in the end, and he gave a speech that he thought was passable. She was so good, so sacrificing, to take him in when he was young, and raise him into the man he is today.
Sacrificing to what? What did he deprive her of that she would have done in her seventies, living in that little semi-detached in North London, too far away to have the benefits of living in a city and too close by to have the benefits of living in the country. Sacrificing to what?
He feels guilty, but he sells the house. He puts most of it into storage, and donates what doesn’t fit. All in all, he only needs to take a week away from uni, and he doesn’t even have to apply for extensions to his end-of-year assignments, which fills him with a satisfaction he can’t feel bad for having. He works hard, and takes a job in the university library, reshelving books that have been returned before the library opens the next morning.
It’s quiet, but all the books are dusty and academic, and there isn’t a picture-book among them.
“You’re outside my house. Get the fuck away from my house and go home.” Tim’s voice is violent over the phone, crackly as the call struggles to find footing over the weak signal. “I mean it, Jon. This is not on.”
Jon holds his phone in the flat of his palm, looking at the little picture of Tim he’s got saved under his contact - it’s Tim at his desk, holding his mug up in front of his mouth, his eyes crossed and his middle finger up. It’s the same picture on Martin’s phone, but on Sasha’s it’s a picture of Tim in profile, looking off to the left, bathed in the soft yellow light of the restaurant they went on their first (and only) date. He doesn’t say anything.
“I’m serious. I want to fucking sleep and I can’t do that with you - go home, asshole.”
Tim hangs up, and Jon sits outside his house for ten minutes more before his phone starts buzzing again. Then he starts his car and drives, and drives, and drives, in the city that never really stops being busy, until his petrol light winks on and his eyes feel heavy and the black light of the night is vanishing, replaced by the bleeding grey of dawn.
When he goes into work Tim doesn’t mention it, but nobody talks to him all day, apart from that moment a little after two when Martin brings him tea and asks if he wants a biscuit with it. Jon says no. He hasn’t had breakfast.
He goes home at seven, and takes the Tube, and for the first time he feels an oddly crippling claustrophobia as he clambers in and out of the carriage. Bodies press against his. How much would something have to squeeze for them all to pop, like Tom and Jerry cartoons, like slapstick eyeballs on springs, like Halloween toys that eat through batteries? Not very much.
Jon doesn’t leave his flat that night - instead, he looks up Martin on LinkedIn, and finds very little of interest. He does find a twitter account called MKBWood, which posts rather sad poetry about being lonely in the city, and then he loses interest in favour of Googling Sasha and reading her undergraduate dissertation, which is an interesting delve into Scottish folk tales and their lasting oral power. Could Sasha kill? Could Sasha kill him?
Would he mind if it was Sasha?
Jon lies on his bed, but not in it, still dressed, his hands resting on his stomach, his thumb pressing into one of the deepest worm-bites on his wrist. He keeps opening it up with his nails, without even thinking about it, and he knows he’s the one getting blood all over the sink in the archives, and his desk, and his bedsheets and his shirts and his socks and his hair. He just can’t stop doing it. Nobody has tried to stop him, yet, although he thinks Martin has noticed.
Yes, he thinks, turning on his side so he can’t see the blood, I think I would be fine with Sasha doing it.
Everyone knows someone who is dead.
“I think you’ll enjoy this one,” Elias tells him, and hands him another brown paper folder with a case number written on it in that black, gooey ink Gertrude liked to write in. Montblanc fountain pens.
How did he know that?
Jon takes it. “Is it… worms?”
“Oh, no,” Elias smiles and his teeth are not sharp, “I just think you’ll like it. It’s rather up your alley, you know.” No light comes this far down the Institute, into the archives, and so the dust motes in the air are highlighted by the flourescent striplights. Jon thinks, wildly, about video games he used to watch Georgie and Joshua play, back when they lived together near UCL, when there was always something down the corridor just out of sight.
Jon takes it. Jon takes it. Jon takes it. “Thank you,” he says.
“Oh, and Jon?”
He turns around. Elias is smiling. “Please stop following your research assistants around. It’s - embarrassing.”
“I-” Jon scowls, but faced with Elias all his accusations fly out of his mouth and cower in the dark corners. His throat is all closed up. “I will.” He didn’t mean to say it, but Elias begs agreement, and the words drag themselves out of his mouth, little hands clawing at his lips and leaving blood in the patches where they cling. “I. Will. Stop.”
“Good,” Elias says, and pats Jon on the shoulder, and the contact makes him shudder.
He wonders if it will be Elias who does it. He wonders if he’ll die like Gertrude.
Jon doesn’t want Elias to kill him - he’d much prefer it if it was Sasha, and right now she’s at the top of his list. Tim would be nice, too. If it came down to it.
Elias would enjoy it too much, and Jon doesn’t want his last sight in this world to be blunt teeth grinning themselves sharp, and eyes that see too much, far too blue for the face they’re set into. So he takes the statement and everyone knows someone who is dead and this continues to be the case as he’s reading it aloud, this poor girl called Lauren who’s been present in the room for the death of seven of her family members and two of her lovers, and who is beginning to think something paranormal is going on. Everyone I know is dead.
Most of them sound peaceful.
Jon doesn’t think he’ll die peacefully, but he still has the optimism to hope he’ll die fast.
“So you don’t trust us now, is that it? What, you think you’re better than us? You think you can figure out what’s going on all on your own?” Tim is waving his hands in the air, his black-painted nails a lot more chipped than usual, eyes completely void of their usual playful air, voice empty of the joke that usually hangs there. Sasha hovers behind his shoulder, with a sort of sympathetic you-did-this-to-yourself look on her face, both hands on the strap of her satchel.
“I do trust you,” Jon pushes his hair back from his eyes, frustrated at the position Tim has caught him in. He’s in the corner of the break room between the tabe and the kettle, and Tim and Sasha are between him and the door.
Tim scoffs. He’s bigger than Jon and bulkier than Martin, and when you strip him of the jovial-rogue he likes to play, he’s an imposing sort of man. “You have a funny fucking way of showing it.”
“I - I,” Jon wishes he could leave. He does want to leave. “Of course I trust you.”
Tim scoffs. It’s an ugly noise, and one Jon wishes he didn’t deserve. He is so imposing, when he wants to be, and it’s sort of a miracle Jon’s never been on the receiving end of the ruffled-up threat that Tim can make just by looking a certain way. Until now, that is. “No, you don’t.”
“Wh- What on Earth is the right answer here, Tim? Do I tr - do I trust you or not? Do you want me to, or, or not?”
Sasha coughs, and pats Tim on the shoulder discreetly. “I’m off to see - um. Bye.”
“Bye,” Tim says, looking at Jon all the while. “God, I don’t know, Jon. I’d like not to see your ugly mug every time I look over my shoulder when I’m out of this place. I’d like to know my boss doesn’t think I committed murder and then came back to work. I’d like to know we’re all still - fucking. Oh, Christ. Maybe I just want you to stop looking like I’ll hit you. Arsehole.”
“I’m not,” Jon says. It sounds lame and limp even to him.
A powerful punch has a weight of around two hundred pounds behind it (how did he know that) and you wouldn't have to be very strong at all to kill someone. If you hit somebody at the base of the neck and you were lucky, not even very lucky, they’d not be in any fit state to hit back (how did he know that).
He wonders if Tim would do it.
“You look -” Tim grits his teeth, and doesn’t look around when Sasha closes the door behind her, “Quit fucking following me.”
He’d still rather Sasha than Tim, but he’d much prefer either of them to Elias. Jon says nothing for so long that Tim makes that horrible scoffing noise again, angry and injured, and storms out of the room after Sasha leaving an empty potential in the space his body had been. He stays there a long time.
It was several weeks of pleasant loneliness before Jon realised that whatever Mister Spider had done, it was permanent. Posters cropped up on lamp-posts and the side of postboxes, and for several years afterwards Daniel-Thomas-Michael stared balefully at him every time he went to the grocery shop for some sweets, out of a photo that faded with the sun. This is your fault, said the photograph. You lived and I died, and what have you got to show for it?
It was the first time Jon had to think about death as something that happened to people without their consent. Before that, he had sort of assumed his mother had wanted to go, and that his father had made some agreement before his death that meant the whole thing was ironed out. But Daniel-Thomas-Michael didn’t want to die; he was going to university, he was the oldest brother in his house, he had a job in the local Asda. It could have been Jon.
That was the first time he thought about how he would eventually go, but the only conclusion he reached was not that way.
So. Sasha, then Tim, then Elias.
When he aggravates Tim he can see the way his fists clench, the way his fingers flex, the way he coils and winds so tightly around himself that he might snap. Tim is big, and Jon knows he goes to the gym three times a week, and that he has a group of friends who travel every few months to the empty, landscapey parts of Wales or Ireland to kayak and camp and - and build castles out of twigs, or whatever it is Bear-Grylls-sorts like to do. Tim is big and strong and touchier these days to what Jon says to him, the slightest hint of an argument prompt enough for him to crack and start shouting.
Jon finds himself drawn to it, the potential violence of it all. Sasha is never physical the way Tim is, although she feels dangerous enough at times. Martin is threatening in a different way, in the very act of his unassuming, like a small animal that is cute and defenceless and has the - the aww-factor right until it tries to claw your eyes out.
But Tim is an easy fight, and Jon is desperate for one.
(Elias never fights, not even when Jon goads him. He just smiles and emails and makes Jon feel small - far too small to be worth Elias’ attention for long enough to be squashed. He isn’t even an ant.)
Tim makes tea for three. Martin’s mug, his mug, Sasha’s mug.
Jon waits until he’s left the room, and then makes some for himself, and on his way back to the office he doubles through the assistant’s room, the five or six desks, half abandoned, the smell of mould and damp and badly-cared-for paper. “I’ll get that to you, Martin,” he says louder than he needs to, ignoring Martin’s look of curious confusion, “I was just making sure the teabags were in order.”
Tim scowls over the top of his desktop. Jon leaves all the teabags in the bin, sliced open, and doesn’t buy a new box, and he doesn’t know why he’s doing it. The office is in cold stalemate for four days before Martin buys some new ones, but Jon can see how it rankles, how it stabs somewhere very close indeed for Tim to be mistrusted so openly.
And he thinks, as he sips his cold tea, his hands shaking on the handle of his mug, that Tim is a good back-up plan. One punch. Back of the neck. No more Jon, and the bodies are the only things in these stories that seem to have a happy -
or at least a peaceful -
“You’re a right freak about these, y’know,” says Basira, hanging around his door, a few old water-spotty statement folders in a plastic Tesco bag dangling from her finger. “No tapes, but I fished these out of the box for you. What d’you think you’ll find in these that the whole Met hasn’t yet?”
“I don’t know,” Jon stands gripping the edge of his desk. His leg gives him terrible trouble when he sits still for longer than a few hours, but a perverse sense of pride stops him from doing the physical therapy the hospital sent him home with. “I think - I don’t know. Same thing that has you all locked behind paperwork every time you get near us, I suppose. There’s something here.”
“I never met the woman,” Jon says, finally standing with a wince. He holds out his hand. “I was appointed a few months after her disappearance, I think you’ll find, but I know you know that already. Before that I was in library services, and the archival staff keep very much to themselves.”
Basira shrugs. She is beautiful, slender and small, but Jon isn’t stupid enough to miss the gun held at her waist by a holster, or the sharp, knife-sharp attention in her brown eyes. “If I’m lucky you’ll confess and I get to drop the case, don’t you know. That’s what we thick-coppers do, isn’t it?”
“I would be an idiot to buy that,” he tells her. The bag rustles, transferring from hand to hand. “Don’t suppose you have another story you’d put down on tape?”
(Say yes. Say yes. There is an itch under his skin when he goes too long without a physical person to record, to document. Jon puts it down to academic frustration - what else can it be?)
To his disappointment, Basira shakes her head, but she’s smiling like that’s just some friendly banter between friends. “Keep asking, Jon. Hope you find what you’re looking for.”
He hears her calling hello to Sasha and Tim as she leaves, lithe and slim and dangerous. He wonders if she would kill him.
He doesn’t want to irritate her into hating him, but he thinks she might do it anyway. If he asked. If the situation called for it.
Melanie is an angry crier and she hates it. She stands with her hands on her hips and demands to know why he’s lying to her, why there are two Sashas, and why he would lie. Her chin wobbles but she thrusts it into the air, daring the world to take her anything less than seriously. Jon does.
And Georgie has always been nice to him, nicer than he deserves, someone who kisses him on the cheek or on the forehead if she can possibly reach, someone who touches him on the waist to let him know she’s squeezing past, someone who lets him have the spare room and who only shouts at him out of worry for him. She doesn’t fear tape recorders - and why should she? - but she knows Jon does, and all she wants (as she tells him, fondly, pressing her dark hand to his forehead) is for him to be happy.
“I am happy,” Jon tells her, and even he winces at the boldfaced lie.
Georgie raises one perfect eyebrow. “Yes, and pull the other one ‘cos it’s got bells on. I don’t care if you aren’t happy at the minute, but I’ll settle for safe and you aren’t even that. I don’t care if tape recorders can’t get me. You’re freaked out.”
“I am… safe,” Jon says. They’re lying on the sofa; Georgie, who is tall and well-built and covered in fluffy jumpers at all times, is serving as a pillow for him while he pets the Admiral, curled up and purring on his chest. Georgie’s arm is around his shoulders, her painted fingernails playing with the holes in his knitwear.
He’s safe - that’s not a lie.
“You’re safe here,” she says. Squeezes him just slightly. “But what about in that bloody Institute?”
“Well, nobody’s safe there. Not me, not Melanie.”
“Don’t-” Georgie’s nails press, briefly and involuntarily, into his skin. “Don’t Jon. I just - just, just don’t. You’re being unfair. I won’t care about either of you over the other.”
“I’m not asking you to.” Jon watches the Admiral flex claws into his jumper, down through the dark fabric, through the cotton t-shirt, down to prick at his skin. He wonders if there’ll be blood there later to match it. “I’m just making a point.”
“Well, don’t make a point.”
Jon winces as the Admiral removes his claws. “I’ll try not to.”
He would ask Georgie to do it, or prod her into doing it, but he’s known her too long and she’s seen him do it to other people. To her, once upon a time, in a very grotty flat half an hour from UCL, screaming at each other until Jon had been sure Georgie was going to - going to what? Hit him? Give him such a whack with whatever kitchen implement came to hand that he fell over right there and then and had to be rushed away? In the end she had just sworn, loudly, and left and he hadn’t seen her for two years.
Then it had been an argument about his refusal to - to be safe, too.
So no, he wouldn’t ask Georgie to do it, because she would just say no. And she’d try and make him talk about his feelings, which would be a ridiculous insult to injury.
“I’m glad, you know,” he says, after a long while where they both just watch the TV, a frighteningly old episode of Top Gear on Dave.
“I’m glad,” Jon coughs, and he knows that his cheeks are scarlet. “That we ended up - still.”
“Oh, don’t make me say it.”
Georgie laughs happily, and pulls him down until his head lies on her chest, lifting her hand to pat his hair. “But I do so like to make you wriggle, you stupid - I’m glad, too.”
Georgie has always been nice to him and so he wouldn’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t bring her into the way he eventually dies. Melanie is out by association, although Jon suspects that wouldn’t stop her for a second. Tim -
“Tea,” says Martin softly, setting the mug down on the desk. “I’m sorry if I, if I interrupted, I - I didn’t hear you talking. And you. And you didn’t come up for lunch.”
Jon blinks up at him, his eyes aching and burning from too long gone without bothering to close them. “I - thank you - what time is it?”
“Sevenish,” Martin says, and rubs his arm sheepishly. “Sorry. But you were, uh, talking most of the day. I didn’t want to - I, we ordered chinese from the place up the road. There’s a box for you if you want it.”
“Um. You could microwave it?”
Jon stands, a wave of shivery exhaustion passing over him. “I was only joking. I’m not bad enough yet that I won’t microwave a bit of chinese. Who paid?”
“Office funds,” Martin says, and smiles. “Elias didn’t stop us before we put the order in and Tim says if he tries to get the money back we’ll lock him in the dark cabinet in Artefact Storage. Opinions?”
“That sounds perfectly accurate,” Jon says. He smiles back, and his cheeks hurt at the action. “I - thank you, Martin.”
Martin gives him a hand when Jon staggers. “You know there are beds here, still. Down in documents. And blankets.”
“I thought that was your bed?”
“I’m not sleeping here every night anymore,” Martin laughs self-consciously, and lets Jon go ahead of him so he can shut the office door. “And - well, if you don’t mind me saying, I think you might - well. I just think it wouldn’t - it can’t be good for your spine, y’know. And - um. Well, I. It isn’t really that far to walk.”
Jon, limping ever-so-slightly on the leg that never healed right, considers it. He really does. “I wouldn’t put you out of your bed. I’m not the one with a worm flat. I actually have a - well, a flatmate of sorts.”
“My ex-girlfriend, if you’d believe,” Jon huffs a little laugh at calling Georgie anything of the sort. “Best friend, I suppose you’d call her, but she let me - well, when Basira was hunting all over the planet to try and get me for murder, she let me stay, and I never really wanted to go back to my old place. It was a bit grim, even at the best of times.”
“Oh,” Martin says. “Um. Melanie’s friend?”
“Georgie Barker. Does - oh, what’s it called, What the Ghost.”
“Ah! Yeah, I used to listen to that,” Martin sounds absurdly pleased with himself, opening the door of the break room before Jon can get it for himself. “I used to be really into all those - spooky things.”
“Spooky things,” Jon repeats. “Spooky things.”
“Well, what else would you call them? True crime and, and ghosts in the parlour and old gran’s haunted bedsocks,” Martin opens the little fridge plugged in at the wall, which has nothing but a half-drunk pint of milk in and a yellow takeaway box. Someone’s written for jon! on it in Sharpie.
“Oh, you know. Aa, my house is haunted, it’s because I sold the wardrobe, gran’s bedsocks are strangling me in my sleep,” Martin pitches his voice high and waves his hands in the air. “All those people who go down on digital. That sort of bollocks.”
Jon slips the box into the microwave without checking to see what’s inside, and smiles again. “I can see you’re wasted in the archives. Martin K Blackwood, best selling spooky author. That’s what’ll be screaming at us out the windows of the Waterstones.”
Martin laughs high and free. “I’ll be sure to hire you as a publicist, then. You can write all the adverts and have a wonderful time telling people what a charlatan I am.”
The chinese is good, the sort of takeaway that’s mostly salt and fat and tastes excellent hot and vile cold. Jon eats it with the plastic fork lying on the table, and listens to Martin’s laugh, and thinks he’d never ask him to do it. Not Martin.
He doesn’t pry any further into why that might be - he just eats, and drinks the tea Martin makes for him, and thinks about books and Waterstones and the way Martin smiles when he thinks he’s said something particularly funny.
“You’re a piece of work,” Tim says.
Yes, he is.
Should they have noticed? That’s a stupid question. Of course they should have noticed, and her voices don’t even sound similar, and now Jon knows he can see the real Sasha in the corner of his eye, petite where this Sasha is tall, dark where this Sasha is pale, with warm coffee-brown eyes and a wickedly sharp sense of humour but not one that stung. Sasha used to be someone they could trust - Sasha used to be -
“Do you think she’s dead,” Martin says. It isn’t a question, and neither Tim nor Jon treat it as one.
“No,” says Jon hollowly. He wishes he could be anywhere but here - he wishes he could be nowhere, but that would be too kind, and nothing is kind here, in this odd little underworld they’ve all stumbled into. Nothing is kind and everything hurts.
Tim grabs unsteadily for the bottle on the table, an absolutely foul homebrewn poitin that Jon was given by a coworker of Georgie’s. The Irish, at least, can be trusted to know when a drink will knock you to the floor so you stop thinking about your grief - it tastes of burning. “Do you think she’ll ever die?”
“No,” Jon says again. He’s pulling at a strip of skin on his thumb, watching in mute fascination as blood wells up underneath it dark and red. “No, I don’t think she will.”
They sit and drink until Jon can’t bear the silence. Tim is the first to leave, swearing ugly and slurring through his teeth, and Martin spends the last two hours Jon is aware of himself wiping leaky tears from underneath his eyelashes.
Jon can hear Tim, somewhere in the office still, screaming something, and the sound of crashing. Box files falling, a filing cabinet on its side, perhaps; they’re terrifically flimsy things, those mustard and brown jobs, and Jon wonders if Tim is imagining anyone in its place. He wonders if it’s him.
They should have noticed. Of course they should.
Daisy is terrifically frightening. She doesn’t sit on the chair in front of Jon’s desk, the way Basira often does when she comes for a chat, but instead perches on the side of his desk just the wrong side of close. Her hair is beautifully long but tied very close to her scalp, plaited all the way down and then wrapped around in a fist-sized bun at the back of her head, and blonde as the sun in the morning. She doesn’t smile.
“Basira’s far too soft on you,” she tells him, as though people have a ground state of being that should be anger instead of polite friendliness. “I keep telling her not to give you those tapes.”
“She seems to like my company,” says Jon. “You should try it sometime.”
“What, your company?”
“No need to sound so horrified.”
And she, like Basira, clearly carries a gun. Two guns, if the twin bulges at both her hips are correct, and a knife strapped to her calf that she doesn’t bother to hide underneath full-length trousers; the supple leather is clearly visible over her sock, under the cuffs of her summer shorts. Unlike Basira, she doesn’t wear a proper uniform, just denim shorts, bulky red boots, and a thin grey t-shirt tucked half into her belt. She’s got three piercings in one ear and five in another, and a little hoop in her lip that she chews on as soon as she stops speaking. “I think she’s wrong, and I came here to tell you so.”
“You’ve made that perfectly clear already, Detective Tonner.”
“I talked to your staff, you know,” she says, leaning forward. The line of her spine is fluid, tip of the skull to base of the back, and she looks like she’s in the middle of a very threatening yoga pose. “None of them trust you very much.”
“No, I don’t suppose they do.” He refuses to find that offensive. He refuses.
“Timothy Stoker,” Daisy taps her short fingernails on the statement right in front of Jon’s nose, “He reckons you’re responsible for pretty much every murder, robbery, and miscellaneous crime since birth, and that if he’s ever found dead in mysterious circumstances we’re to blame you without question. Sasha James was quite a bit nicer, but also fair, and said you were a few shades to the left of sensible. Martin Blackwood said you were under a lot of strain, and had been through a traumatic experience recently. He said we shouldn’t be too harsh too quickly. Then Stoker said we should blame you anyway.”
“Well,” Jon shrugs with half a shoulder, “Tim and I have been at odds recently. It stands to show-”
“I don’t give a fuck about the office politics of this barmy place,” Daisy says. Her accent gets stronger when she wants to be scary, and she seems always to want to be scary. “All I care about is that you leave Basira out of it.”
Jon swallows. “Basira is her own person.”
“She’s my person, I think you’ll find,” says Daisy. She slides off his desk, and Jon thinks about knives and throats and hands and asphyxiation. (It takes five minutes to pass out, and five more to die.)
(How did he know that?)
Daisy could do it. Daisy probably would do it.
He thinks for a second that Jude might do it, in as much as you can think through the screaming pain of having your hand burnt down to the bone. She leaves him on the park bench, sobbing so hard someone has to ring an ambulance for him, just a dog-walker that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he can’t think why she didn’t -
If she thought he was such a threat -
Just finish the job.
They ask him in A&E what he did to himself, and Jon refuses to answer point-blank, and he can hear over the sound of his blood pounding in his ears people muttering things about drugs, and - and homelessness in London, and he supposes it isn’t too unbelievable, what with his dying appetite and his dying sleep schedule and his dying -
But in the end he doesn’t even tell them his name. They can’t give him painkillers, or won’t give him painkillers, and he waves their apologies off with his free hand, and gets two hundred feet away from the doors of A&E before he cracks and calls Martin.
“Wrong - sorry, I didn’t mean to call,” he says. Hangs up.
His hand hurts, and he wonders why she didn’t just -
Didn’t just -
And Daisy almost does do it, and Jon’s own blood is very hot and very red, pulsing out of his neck and down his almost-favourite shirt, and Michael is dead on the ground and he wasn’t so very terrible, once upon a time, before whatever it is that gets to people got to him. He looks younger, dead. He looks like he didn’t see it coming.
She tells Basira that Jon is a monster, and that she kills monsters, and the world is ever-so black and white when you look at it like that.
And at the end of that all, Basira is just another body for Elias to hide behind, and Jon ends up with Martin’s scarf held against his throat to stem the blood for long enough that they’re sure he won’t die. Martin worries him into sleeping in the archives that night, still with the scarf tied around his neck, and Jon knows (knows) with unerring certainty that Martin will watch him all night, in case he wakes choking on his own blood.
He doesn’t, but when he wakes up -
Still alive, miraculous as it is -
Martin is watching him, sat in that little folding chair by the door. He looks half-gone with sleep. “My turn,” he mumbles, lurching towards the bed, and Jon gets up just in time to avoid being cannonballed by Martin’s determination to get a few hours in. He thinks about spiders and books and how his grandmother never watched him sleeping, for those few weeks Jon was frightened of the dark. He thinks about how he never even thought to ask.
He doesn’t like shouting. Spittle clings to his lip and his throat hurts when he raises his voice, right on the place where Daisy cut him deep, and he feels so humiliated and injured and uncomfortable in the light that he just can’t stop when he gets started. “Fuck you!”
“You dragged us all into this,” Tim hisses, and his lip curls in that ugly sneer it so often settles into when he looks at Jon these days. “You were the one sitting outside my fucking house, like I didn’t get bloody burrowed into-”
“I didn’t take the job to avenge any-fucking-body, Mister Heroic - Mister fucking Machismo - what are you going to do when you find her? Or him, for that matter? What are you going to do? He’s dead, Tim, or worse-”
“Expelled,” Tim says, and then laughs. His eyes are wet and manic. He looks like he hates Jon and Jon has to agree. “No, no, go on, I want to hear your brainy thesis. Wow us all, why don’t you. Really impress me. I’m waiting-”
“He’s not going to be, to be sitting there, jus - just waiting to be rescued because that’s not how real life works, Tim! He’s dead! He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead, Danny Stoker is dead and you won’t get any - any closure, any catharsis, because life is not a fucking three-part film, and he - and Orsinov won’t, won’t let you see him because it feeds on this sort of shit and - I didn’t drag you into fucking anything-”
“Tim the other brother,” Jon says high and shrill and hysterical, “Tim the other one! What, did you think you’d replace him when he died? Did you think you’d get all the friends, and the - and the girls and the hobbies? Did you really? What, were you happy, all secret, playing ghostbuster with Sasha in the office? Did you think she loved you? Everyone saw you mooning after her, looking like a fool, and now it turns out you were in love with a - a - a Not-Thing - Tim the other brother!”
Tim the other brother hangs in the air for a long moment, a cruel, teasing echo.
“What do you know,” Tim snarls. “What do you know? See a worm and lose your mind?” He angles his neck and Jon can see the rippling pattern of worm scars tracing from the bottom of his ear all down through the collar of his shirt. “What, you think I got this from necking off with the wrong guy in the pub? Oooh, there goes Tim, he’s mentally stable, he’s not been replaced by a bloody table, he isn’t a wetwipe, he hasn’t lost his marbles-”
“Fuck you,” Jon says. He’s on fire. He’s burning. Jude is holding his hand. “Fuck you. You aren’t the main character of this - nutty soap opera - you don’t get to - pull the shots- ”
“Neither do you!”
They stand, staring, and Jon is breathing heavily, trying to pull air past the damage in his throat. His office isn’t that soundproofed; is Martin still around? Melanie, Basira? Will anyone hear them?
Who will they think is in the right?
Will he care?
Tim is a big, big man, and Jon hasn’t been eating or sleeping properly for months. It would be easy. His father suffered a brain bleed on impact and died, not instantly, but ninety-one seconds after his head hit the pavement. (How did he?) His mother died painlessly, but without any knowledge of it. She might not even be aware she’s dead.
“Fuck you, Jon. Fuck you and your pity party and fuck you and your - whatever, whatever you think you’re doing. You’re not saving the world. You’re what the world needs saving from.”
Jon stands and imagines a reed, waves lapping against it, never managing to break it - but maybe he wants to be snapped in half and carried home, away from the elements that batter him. “Fuck you,” he says, more because he’s run out of ammunition to fire at Tim, and breath with which to fire it. His throat hurts.
“You think you have it sorted, Jon,” Tim shifts towards him, and he looks so angry and Jon can’t fault him it, “You think you’re masterminding this whole thing and you think you’ve got the cards and you think - you think - you think for one second everyone here wouldn’t - what, this is some - this is sick! Martin’s too much of a wet fucking blanket to say anything, but Melanie’s three seconds from committing murder, and Daisy’s already tried once, and Basira - nobody likes you, Jon! Nobody’s inviting you out for drinks, nobody’s asking what trauma in your childhood led you to this place because nobody cares!” And he keeps advancing, and keeps advancing, and the back of Jon’s legs hits his desk and he can go back no further. “Nobody! Cares!”
“What makes you think I care,” Jon says. Come on. Just a little bit further. “You’re nothing special either, Tim, and Danny-”
The punch catches him on the chin, and his head flies backwards, his glasses toppling off his face and towards the other corner of the office. It hurts, but -
“Coward,” spits Jon, his vision horribly blurred, his jaw aching, disappointment pooling deep and unpleasant inside him, the scar on his throat burning where the healed skin has been tugged on. “Coward - come on, you can hit harder than that-”
Tim looks at him with something approaching disgust. “Yeah, and I don’t want to. Fuck you, Jon.”
He leaves. Jon clings to the edge of his desk with his good hand, and prods at the place Tim hit him until his skin is on fire, and even then it doesn’t feel like enough.
He waits a month for Orsinov to kill him. She takes skin from his shoulders, and his back, and his forearms, and she monologues plenty, but she seems to shy away from outright killing him and he’s given plenty of time to heal.
And then he thinks, dizzy through the haze, that Michael is about to do it.
And then Helen arrives and she doesn’t and that is a good thing.
Dear Jon, (says the note in with the statement),
I think you will like this one. It has some meat on its bones.
(Just my little joke!)
I hope once you have rested and read it, that you feel revived. Travelling can be so exhausting on an empty stomach. I cannot wait for your return - I am sure you will have gathered incredibly important information, and we all appreciate it very much.
Elias Bouchard, etc.
Jon’s eyes are hurt and heavy, and it hurts for him to breathe, and the bed he’s taken in the roadside motel is showered with tissues soaked in mucus. He’s sweating through his t-shirt, and he hasn’t been able to get out of bed in days.
He reads the statement and the loathing settles inside him as he feels himself get better, and he wishes Elias had left it just a few days longer.
Or, at least, the shade calling itself Gerry -
Refuses to be pitiful, and that in itself is a pitiable act. He is translucent, and Jon can see trees through his body, and the huge, shining expanse of an uncaring sky through his head. He is timid when he asks Jon to call him that, as though there’s any chance Jon will say no, and his face washes over with painful relief when Jon says yes.
He has been dead but not dead for years. Jon wonders if it hurts.
Gerry asks him to burn the page, and Jon agrees - of course he’ll agree. He isn’t a monster.
“Does it hurt?” Jon asks softly, looking over his shoulder all the while for the return of the two crazies with the guns.
Gerry looks at him, and even though he looks younger, he’s older - what, early eighties? But right now, looking at Jon, he feels a thousand years old and a hundred times wiser. “Of course it hurts. I’m dead and I’m getting ripped out of a body that isn’t mine every time Little Miss Murder and Van Homeless Helsing fancy a chat. It hurts every single second.”
“Will burning you hurt?”
“I hope it does,” Gerry says. He looks too tired to be scared. “Otherwise I won’t know if it’s worked.”
Jon goes home with more scars and a worsened limp and a fear of what he’s becoming. How far is too far - how far will he go before nobody can stop him?
Tim says he won’t forgive him, and honestly Jon hadn’t been expecting it. He’s slavering, champing at the bit to hurt someone (but not Jon, apparently) and Daisy is twitchy, sliding sticky-velcro fingerless gloves over her beautiful hands, checking and double-checking all the equipment they need to bring, touching Basira on the knee and on the shoulder and on the cheek and on the lips as though to check she’s still real and not illusion. Melanie is biting. She tells him she hates what he’s done to her. She tells him she hopes it hurts.
It already does, Jon thinks, but doesn’t say because even he can see that’s maudlin.
If a man is in a building and that building explodes, does that man die?
With any luck, yes.
“I’m staying,” Martin says. He takes what Jon gives him, the little golden lighter with the spider-web pattern almost, but not quite, flaked completely off. “I’ll do the - well. Good luck.” He grabs Jon’s arm with his free hand and squeezes, and Jon is reminded of Georgie and the way she said she’d always love him, and the way she’d thought she wasn’t lying. “I’ll be thinking of you guys.”
He pockets the lighter.
Everyone remembers the morals of those little picture-books from childhood. Being brave isn’t feeling no fear (she was beautiful when she left him) being brave is feeling fear and doing it anyway (and Martin’s hands are shaking when he stops holding Jon’s arm and Jon wants to ask why he stopped and can he do it again).
So Jon, Daisy, Basira, and Tim.
A monster, two policemen, and a maniac walk into a bar. Is there a joke there somewhere?
“I’ll give it when you come back,” Martin says of the lighter to Jon, and Jon smiles and says something polite, and he knows that Daisy and Tim - at least - know he doesn’t plan to. They’re going to blow up a bloody great collection of monsters, and none of the people Jon’s bringing with him will try particularly hard to save him if it comes down to that. All he would need to do is be unlucky, and he’s already proved he’s good at that. Norfolk will cope. Martin will cope.
The train is just over three hours from Liverpool Street, with a switch at Norwich after two of those hours have passed. Daisy does crosswords, curled up at the window, her summer dresses and flowery shirts exchanged for a black t-shirt and a pair of comfortable cargo trousers, pockets bulging. She wears the sort of fingerless gloves Jon didn’t think were for sale outside costume departments in Hollywood, but she makes them look as though they have purpose. As though they’ll grip. Her hair is tied so tightly behind her head that Jon can see the strain on the skin of her forehead, trying to regain some freedom of movement. Baisra sits next to her, head on her shoulder. She’s wearing a black hijab, instead of the colours she likes to match to her socks.
Tim sits beside Jon, then, and his knuckles are white and his hands are fists.
Jon presses his face to the plastic window and thinks about jumping. Two hundred and thirty-eight people, on average, die in rail-assisted suicides every year in Bri-
How did he know that?
And then he is unknown.
There is a voice in something that could be attached to them, and they feel odd - for, yes, they do feel - and they know that once they had a name, and once they had an identity, and once they had a purpose but all those things are alien to them now, and they are only vaguely aware of - of the ends, of where their physicality ends and everything else begins. Do you know what a hand looks like? Do you know how many you have? They are worried, if that is what this sensation is, because they know they had hands but how many and in what place escapes them.
Someone is screaming, or at least, making a noise that cuts through the dancing. There is skin. Is it them? There is singing.
Do you know who you used to be?
So they used to be someone. That’s good news. There are muscles underneath them, and blood, too, hot and wet, and they remember bleeding. They remember skinning their knee on the street and having their grandmother hand them a plaster with the Teletubbies on to stop the crying, although all they had wanted was a hug -
So they had a grandmother.
And a plaster with Teletubbies on.
They cling to these ideas desperately and there is someone hitting them with something and hot things, wet things on their face that taste of salt and the feeling of pain. Someone is berating them.
Someone is screaming.
They berate them, and tell them they’ve failed, these voices that are so familiar they should know who is speaking.
They clutch their own skull and sink to what might be the ground, and wait for something to happen. Maybe this is what dying felt like. It took your father ninety-one seconds to die after his head hit the pavement.
So they had a father, too.
This is your fault!
So they are a you.
And they have fault.
And they can see.
He can see.
“Not without the detonator,” Jon says, and his face is covered with blood and tears and he will never, ever forget how it felt to be absolutely nothing but something with fault and a grandmother and a plaster with Teletubbies on it. “I see you - I see you.”
And Tim is the one with the detonator, and still he doesn’t forgive Jon, and Jon can’t blame him.
He can see everything, now.
And in his dreams he thinks about dying in his sleep, peacefully, gently. But that’s the thing about dying - he doesn’t want to be the one that does it.
He can’t begrudge any of them any of it. Georgie relies wholly on her discretion to tell her when she needs to leave, without fear to guide her in what to do, and she shouts at him and he presses a cold hand to his forehead and thinks, muzzily, that’s how many i’m supposed to have.
Melanie is angry. Bitterly, coldly angry. Basira is just bitter and cold.
And Martin is -
Jon knows how to stitch skin. Or rather, Jon knows how to stitch skin, and he also knows (stop it, maybe Elias told him, maybe Sasha showed him) that there are sterile needles, or sterile-ish, in the third drawer down in the desk in document storage. Maybe Martin put them there all the way back when you needed a corkscrew to feel safe against the evils of the world. Maybe Gerry put them there when he thought every second was going to be his last. Maybe Michael put them there.
He sews himself up with dental floss and a sterile-ish needle, with a thick wad of brown paper in his mouth so he doesn’t make a noise. He doesn’t want Basira to come in, or worse, Melanie; he isn’t up for a fight, not with his hands shaking anyway and a great deal of his own blood on his clothes.
Not that they would tell the difference. They’d see blood and assume -
What? Who could he have killed?
And Martin is -
Melanie has every right to hate him. He would hate him too, bending over her, drugging her, doing surgery on her leg without her knowledge, and she had every right to go at him with whatever came to hand first.
But she -
Could she not have gone just a little further to the left? In absence (not death, he isn’t dead, death is too kind) of Tim, Melanie has gone straight to the top of the list of people Jon would be happy to be killed by, but it has to be accidental. There’s a thin line between active and passive, and Jon presses as close to the barrier as he can, pressing against the limits of passive but never quite crossing over, never quite breaching. After all, he could have just - not woken up, and he did that. He could have tried a little harder to explode in Norfolk. He could have pressed into Daisy’s knife. He could have prodded Tim just a little further. He could have run from Trevor and Julia in America.
He did none of those things because Jon does not want to die - himself.
The paper in his mouth is clogged with saliva. His eyes are watery, but it’s mostly from the effort of putting the needle into himself again and again and again. It hurts, and he’s put in mind of being little, and playing in the rose bushes with the cat and her kittens down the road, and of having splinters shoved under his skin that his grandmother had to fish out with horribly long, horribly blunt tweezers.
Elias in prison. Well, at least that part of the plan worked, although being replaced by a Lukas of all the things… what does the Lonely want in the Archives?
Peter Lukas troubles him, and Martin even more. The day after he was released from hospital he had to go and buy a little garish Bic lighter, in a terrible shade of orange, and a pack of cigarettes even though he should by all rights have quit by now. Peter Lukas worries him. Martin was always an island of peace. Or a, a, a symbol perhaps, of the fact that no matter how terribly warped their lives got, there was always capacity for something good.
Does Martin know he’s awake? Would he care? Does he want Jon to find him? Would he be upset, annoyed?
Jon shakes the largest square out of the box of cotton and plasters he bought at Boots, in the same run as the lighter. He had thought, just weeks previous, that he was being overcautious, but now as he smooths it over the stab wound on his shoulder he just feels proud of himself for once, for predicting this one thing correctly.
Passive. Always passive. Jonathan Sims, the Archivist, who watches but does not act.
And so he won’t ask Melanie to try again, but when she does, he won’t make any particular effort to get away, no more than could be considered necessary to show he tried.
And Martin -
Well. Martin deserves better than any of them, anyway. And certainly better than Jon.
He doesn’t manage to cut off any fingers, but he does manage to hurt quite a lot.
Maybe that’s what Jared likes, as he watches Jon with hungry, dark eyes, his tongue escaping his mouth to lick all over his scarred and slavering lips. Maybe he likes the fear of it, or the pain, like a seasoning, and Jon screams when he sinks fingers into his stomach, and bites down hard on his hand when Jared snaps first one rib, then another, right at the root.
Neither Melanie nor Basira, or even Helen, gives him much sympathy when he comes to. He doesn’t expect them to, although he feels a bit faint even after, holding his own rib in his shaking (and why do they do that?) hands.
“Don’t tell Martin about this,” he asks Melanie, as they stare in dread at the coffin in the corner of his office.
She looks at him, eyebrows raised. “Why would I? It’s not like he cares. He’s started signing his memos as assistant to Peter Lukas, can you believe it?”
“Well, I suppose he is, now.”
“Huh.” She doesn’t sound very pleased. “Well, if he doesn’t ask I won’t tell, and he won’t ask.”
And so Jon thinks that he’ll die in the Buried, for a bit, and he doesn’t even really mind. Martin is safe (enough) up with Lukas doing whatever it is Lukas has planned for him, and Basira is away chasing up leads from a source she doesn’t trust him with, and Melanie hates him enough not to really care if this is where he stays. In a way it feels warm, in those seconds the Buried gives him during which he can breathe properly, before the ground begins to shift and squeeze him, and he can hear someone singing. “I fear no foe,” they warble, and their voice is wet and unhappy, “With thee at hand to bless-”
And then Jon slides further into the Buried and he loses the singer, but the song stays with him for hours and hours and hours. He can feel the fading thrum of connection to his rib slowly dying under the weight of the soil, but he hasn’t got the energy to care. So what? So what? He’d rather die in another Fear than suffer the satisfaction of the Eye.
Until he hears Daisy, and Daisy hears him, and then they’re off again -
Round and around and around they go, and where they stop, nobody knows -
“You saved my life, you know.”
Jon stares at the tape recorders scattered around his office, droning their fearful little stories. “No, I didn’t.”
Daisy’s hand is soft and earthy when she slips it into his, and Jon flinches so badly that he hears her intaken breath. She says nothing, though, and he is grateful.
But still he worries about Martin. Is he safe? Is he well?
(Do you think about me at all?)
Martin sends them the tape, and a little note that says talk to him, and Jon really genuinely wonders what Martin was hoping for. Melanie slaps him hard across the face and the bruises last for a lot longer than usual, even though the actual pain leaks out of his skin half an hour, a little less, after the strike.
“Would you kill me, if you had to?”
Daisy is sitting against the wall in document storage, beside the little folding cot that held Martin, once upon a time, back when everything was fine. She has a little pair of nail scissors in the flat of her palm, slightly open, and she’s tilting them to reflect the yellowy light off the bulb into the room, like puddled sunshine. She doesn’t look up. “Hello, Sims. Didn’t think you knew where I was.”
Jon leans heavily on his cane, and shuts the door behind him. “I know more than I want to at the best of times. Of course I knew where you were.”
“Yeah.” Daisy is wearing something almost like what she used to, but instead of the loose shirts and skirts she wore, they’re tighter, closer to the skin, gripping her shoulders and her waist and her ankles in a way Jon can only imagine must remind her of what was good about that place. “Are you gonna sit? You should probably sit. You look tired.”
“I find it hard to sleep.”
“Well, I didn’t tell you to sleep, did I? Come on. Sit here.” She pats the ground beside her, and if Jon wasn’t well-versed by now in Daisy’s particular brand of standoffish, he would think she didn’t want him to. But she does. She wants him to very badly.
So he sits. “What are you doing down here?”
“Cutting my hair,” she says, and waves the nail scissors at him. “You do it - I can’t reach.”
Jon takes them gingerly, as though expecting a bite. “I - did you hear what I said?”
“Yeah, I did, and I want you to cut my hair.” Daisy looks at him then, and her blue eyes are rimmed with red, although the skin around them is completely dry. “We can talk about the rest of your shit later.”
“I can’t - cut hair-”
“Slice it off,” she turns her head, and Jon sees that her braid has been plaited a lot looser than usual, and hasn’t been wrapped into the bun she wears it in, so it flows down her back and pools on the floor. “Just cut where I started the braid. Please?”
“I - I. Yes. Okay.” Jon slides his finger and thumb, badly trembling, into the scissors. “But would you?”
“Do it faster.”
“I-” Jon catches himself irritably. His cane, propped on his thigh, slides off as he shifts to get a better angle at her hair. “I’m trying to make you look half- good.”
“Don’t know why you should care about that.”
“Fine, fine. But-”
“I was going to kill you after the Unknowing, but you know that, don’t you,” she says, and she doesn’t ask because she knows he knows. “And I tried to kill you before. With - sky-boy. Lightning man. And… Melanie asked me, when we were listening to the - Martin’s tape. So why are you asking?”
Jon makes rough, uneven cuts, the nail scissors far too small to cut the thickness of Daisy’s hair all in one go, so that little parts of the braid fall and snake to the ground over his wrists. Her braid is heavy in his hand. “I think you might need to sooner or later, is all, and I, I want to know you’d do it. I would want you over - someone like Elias.”
She shifts her shoulders back a little. “You might not die. Ever think about that?”
“I’m going to die, Daisy. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to it.” He had aimed for a joke, but it sinks down into something approaching uncomfortable seriousness.
Daisy’s braid comes away from her, and Jon holds it for a second like a snake before setting it down on the ground. She lifts her hands to her hair and shakes it out, a wet dog at the park, and it falls in uneven chops and waves down around her ears and over her forehead. “Christ, thank you.” She looks good - she looks different, very different, and younger somehow, her blonde hair half-obscuring her eyes. “Jon, you’re not - I’m not going to kill you.”
He feels abruptly, deeply betrayed. “I just want - Daisy. If I go wrong, if I go bad, will you kill me?”
“Some could argue you’ve already done that,” she says, but she’s smiling gently, both of her hands turned to rest on his knees. “But I know what you’re trying to say.”
“And will you do it?”
“Will it make you happy if I say yes?”
He just gives her a look.
She looks right back at him. “I’ll kill you, Jonathan Sims, but I won’t be the one telling Martin.”
“Martin doesn’t have to know,” Jon says. He feels light, full of a sick happiness that he won’t have to cross the border. Passive to the end.
She raises an eyebrow. “You’re a fool if you think that,” she says, and then smiles. “Thank you for the haircut.”
And to Jon’s eternal shock, she pulls him into a hug that lasts longer than either of them are comfortable with, and when he pulls away the shoulder of his jumper is wet and Daisy is sniffing and he’s wiping his cheeks with the back of his hands.
He thinks she’s quite relieved, really, when he leaves.
The Lonely is exactly what it professes to be, and Jon is caught and seized with a desire stronger than he’s ever felt to simply stop - to stop and watch his archive blaze itself out of existence, in this other space where everything smells like salt and everything is seen through a hazy cloud of self-doubt. The Lonely pulls at his ankles with every step and his waist with every movement, and his glasses become so foggy so quickly that eventually he just takes them off and folds them in his pocket. He doesn’t really need them to see through, anyway.
Martin, and what might be happening to him, is the only thing preventing Jon from sinking into wet, white apathy. Because Martin is kind, dreadfully, horribly kind, and Martin is well-meaning, and Martin has the capacity to be cruel and doesn’t act on it and that makes him better than anyone he knows.
And Martin didn’t give up on him. Jon believes that. Martin is working for Lukas because he thinks it will help them, and Jon trusts him enough to -
Jon trusts him -
The steps down into the tunnels are wreathed in choking loneliness.
Jon was always a lonely child. But you know that already, don’t you? His grandmother loved him, he knows that now, but at the time she showed it sparingly and in her own way, and Jon at six years old hadn’t the knowing of it. He thought he was an unpleasant, but necessary duty for her, something to be endured but not enjoyed, and the teasing and subsequent disappearance of whatever his name was meant that Jon made his first real, truthful friends at uni.
Fat lot of use they were, towards the end. Only Georgie stayed and even she had to bail out.
Jon has always been a lonely man. But never has he felt this oppressive, aching, painful sense of his own loneliness in the world; of connections that everyone else has that he lacks. He can see them, wriggling red veins that tie people to people, but when he looks at his own body he sees the lack of the veins as starkly as if they were there.
He thinks that maybe this is the end.
But then, as there always is, there is Martin.
“You know, I never had you pegged for a cuddler,” is what Jon wakes up to sixteen days into being alive and well and in love with Martin Blackwood. He blinks sleepily, and makes the sort of noises that you make when you’re waking up, and realises his face is pressed most of the way into Martin’s armpit and Martin’s fingers are pulling, softly and gently, through his hair.
“I never had me pegged for one either,” Jon mumbles into the warmth of Martin’s arms. “Mmm. Good morning. What time is it?”
Martin laughs, and it is so pleased and happy that Jon rots deep inside from knowledge he doesn’t deserve it. “You made it through the night, I think, just about. It’s around seven? Six or seven. Sun rose a few minutes ago.”
“Are you happy?”
Martin laughs again. Jon feels it through his bones more than he hears it, a comforting vibration rumbling through his chest and up his throat. "Yeah, you could have fooled me. Are you warm?"
In those sixteen days, Jon has seen Martin clam up into a frighteningly unresponsive dissociation four times, has held his hands through a puffy-breath panic attack twice, watched him cry seven times, and has listened to him vomit into a hedge on one memorable occasion. Martin has seen Jon work himself into a state so severe that he had to be held down until he stopped trembling and stammering three times, crying once, and straining for breath after an innocuous object startled him into some thought - well, at least once a day.
They’re working on it. Basira texts twice daily, but she still hasn’t seen Daisy. Jon wears Martin’s clothes because it feels like being -
Well. Not to sound like a teenager, but he’s rather enjoying the experience. Of a hug.
Martin’s arm squeezes, and Jon has to lift his head. “I’m making breakfast, if you’re awake,” he says. His voice sounds quite like he’s trying to coax a frightened animal into movement. “Coffee? Pastries? I’ll save you the hazelnut if you get up.”
“I’m up, I’m up,” Jon blinks, and the blurry world he sees through his conventional eyes is replaced by the sharp-spec world his connection to another eye gives him. His glasses are gathering dust on the bedside table. “Did Daisy - she did say she was sending them on today, right?”
Martin, now out of bed and fiddling with the curtains, looks at him with concern. “Are you okay? Are you sick - are you tired?”
“No, no, don’t worry yet,” Jon sits at the edge of the bed for now, his head spinning unpleasantly. He’s trying out this new thing called telling Martin the truth and so far, it’s going well. “I’m - well, I can’t lie and say I’m fine, but I’m not exactly dying yet.”
“I went a far longer time than this in America, and even then I just got… tired. Lethargic. A bit feverish, towards the very end, but by then I suppose Elias had had his fun and sent me a few to keep me going.” Jon gives Martin a smile, and he knows for certain he doesn’t deserve the one he gets back. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I can’t really help it, I’m afraid,” Martin says, moving away from the open curtains to press his hand to Jon’s head, his thumb stroking over the lines of Jon’s forehead as light as a kiss. “And if you keep on running headfirst into things that’ll kill you, I’ll keep on worrying about you.”
“I’ll try my best not to.”
They talk about it only once, a few days into their stay in the cottage. Martin talks about the Lonely, in halting, wet sentences, difficult to fight out of his mouth, and Jon holds one of his hands and stares at the bitten fingernails and thinks about how he could have stopped it all so easily if only he’d tried. Martin talks about Peter Lukas the way one might talk about a strict, but fair schoolteacher, but Jon doesn’t let it bother him. You grow fond of anyone if they’re the only other human you see for almost a year.
But they talk about that, and then Jon talks about being a monster. He means only to mention it so Martin knows, because it’s unfair to keep him in the dark, but Martin holds his wrists and looks so upset that Jon almost regrets bringing it up. He tells Martin not to worry, that Daisy agreed to do it if he just told Martin, and that doesn’t seem to make anything better and Martin looks so distraught that in the end Jon just flitters his way out of the conversation and makes them both a heavy, sweet cup of tea. Martin tries to bring it up again that night, but Jon refuses.
They eat pastries and drink coffee from a proper french press, and hold hands over the table. Jon reads the newspaper; Martin checks his phone, and reads out entertaining headlines for them, or sets it over the paper to show Jon a particularly good cat picture.
At night they sleep together. Martin is taller and bigger than Jon, and the bed isn’t all that big, and so they sleep wrapped up in one another, and Jon always wakes up warm and secure.
For the first time in a long, long, long time he doesn’t think about dying.
(And he doesn’t think about who will do it, and his list has long since crumbled, and danger seems so very far away from their warm little paradise in the middle of the hills, five miles away from the nearest town. Martin holds his hand. They listen to the radio. They talk.)
(Jon learns more about Martin in a week than he had in five years. They listen to the radio. They do the crossword every morning, once Jon has woken up, and he promises not to cheat.)
(He doesn’t think about dying.)
(Martin gives him his lighter back, one cold, cloudy day, and rubs the back of his neck sheepishly. “It reminded me of you,” he says.)
He is terribly, shockingly happy.
He should have known it was too good to last.
So here at the end of all things, nobody is dead. Everyone is dying, constantly and painfully, but nobody is dead.
Jon has killed, now, several times. He killed the NotSasha and he’ll kill anything else that tries to take Martin away from him, and he killed the people in the village by his negligence and he killed the people in the war by his voice, and he’ll kill Martin by proximity, and still Martin refuses to leave.
“I’m not safe to be around,” Jon says. From down his forehead, from the eye that doesn’t exist, hot tears run thick and salty. “You have to go - before I go -”
“Shut up,” says Martin. He is holding Jon’s hand.
“Martin,” Jon whispers, and the eye that doesn’t exist is sobbing now, “Martin - I don’t want to die.”
Martin says nothing, because finally he knows what Jon’s known all along, and there is no happy ending for people who are monsters. But he holds him close and presses his mouth to Jon’s hair and says nothing when the wind howls around them, hiding the sounds of Jon’s crying.
They move on together. In that, at least, they agree.